Thursday, June 26, 2008
(Maggie in Winter of 1983, San Francisco)
This is a short-short story that is, once again, mostly true. This is how I first heard of AIDS -- though once it had a name at all, it was called GRID for a while, Gay-Related Infectious Disorder.
The Red Queen was Arthur Evans.
THE RED QUEEN
In 1980, everyone wants Alby. “Everyone” is her girlfriend Randy, of course, plus the other two young dykes in Randy’s household, Francie and Leo. Alby is over there all the time. Their Victorian apartment has three bedrooms and no living room, but the entry foyer at the top of the stairs is huge and opens onto the kitchen, also big and bright. This serves as their common space unless it’s sunny, when you’ll find them on the balcony off Francie’s room, three stories above Castro Street between 18th and 19th – Faggot Central. They spend entire afternoons on the balcony, naked, young, hairy, with Alby at their core, the object of all desire.
Alby has two roommates of her own; they all moved here from a separatist land collective in Colorado. They live in a railroad flat near the original Levi Strauss factory in the Mission. She’s not going home a lot right now because her roommates, who are a couple, fight every day. Whatever they tell you they are fighting about, what’s really up is monogamy. They agreed to monogamy back in Colorado, when the number of out women in their small town was a list you could put on paper, and besides, they were newly in love. Two years later in Lesbos by the Bay, they are reduced to making three-month fidelity contracts. Another contract is coming due.
Jude, her middle class roommate, keeps saying Okay, let’s GO for it, let’s have three months of NON-monogamy. Lee, her working class roommate, is itching to cut loose, even bought a black leather jacket although she’s too pale to look good in it. What’s stopping her is: the idea of someone else being with Jude makes her flat-out crazy. She’s trying to figure out a way to have her cake but keep Jude on bread and water. This week her plan was based on class, how Jude’s privilege should keep her at home working on “issues” while Lee gets to experiment with the notion of “plenty”. When Lee runs this theory by Alby, Alby just busts out laughing. Since Alby has the impeccable credentials of having been raised poor, Lee knows it’s back to the old drawing board.
Alby and Randy are nonmonogamous but it’s not so hard for them because Alby mostly doesn’t care who Randy wanders off with, except for that weekend she spent with the woman from a CETA training, a new dyke from Oregon who wound up giving them both Trichomonas. That pissed Alby off. Alby’s slept with her ex twice and messed around with lots of women from their political group since she and Randy got together, and Randy is real relaxed about it all. But Randy draws a line about Alby going after women from Randy’s “inner circle”, says that’s incestuous. The inner circle includes Randy’s roommate Leo.
Leo wants to be a star, and is extroverted in the way that makes her friends thinks they’ve wandered into a rehearsal when they are with her. Her hair curls no matter how short she cuts it and is the color of strong red zinger tea. She earns enough to pay for rent, veggies, and tap lessons by working three nights a week as a stripper for the Mitchell Brothers. Alby doesn’t like to think about Leo stripping, and instead focuses on the hilarious skits Leo writes and performs at benefits. Leo saves the abandoned shopping lists she finds in carts at grocery stores and creates characters around these fragments of a stranger’s life. Alby’s favorite is the woman who sweeps into the store wearing a power suit and no smile. Her heels click rapidly against the floor like a playing card in a kid’s bicycle spoke. Her voice is impatient as she calls out the only items on her list: “TRIScuits………..”Summer’s Eve.”
Years later, Alby would think of Leo as a butch who cleaned up well. But in those days, well-bred political dykes didn’t let butch and femme have even a chair in the corner. By the time Alby will bring herself to admit that Leo’s bulging biceps and tucked in shirts are what really does it for her, Leo is living in Los Angeles and has made an appearance on the Gong Show. She was supposed to have been in some terrible Olivia Newton John movie, but Alby sat through it twice and never spotted Leo. She isn’t in the L.A. phone book. At least not under Schacter, her real name. Her stripper name was Leo Rising, but that isn’t listed, either.
Back to 1980. Randy’s other roommate, Francie, works part-time at a rock and bead store in the Haight. She plays the dulcimer and sings them stuff at night like “Blow the Candles Out” or “Matty Grove”. Alby keeps pestering her to change the pronouns in Matty Grove, it has the potential to be a great dyke ballad, but Francie refuses to butcher a classic, she says. Well, see if that attitude gets HER into Alby’s pants. Francie came right out with her attraction to Alby, asked if there was a chance. Alby used Randy’s no-inner-circle rule with a rueful grin, but softened it by giving Francie a back rub. Francie’s hair is too long for Alby anyhow.
Randy’s room has a bed that is bigger than a twin but smaller than a double. Alby complains about how little room there is to sleep in. Randy says Alby should be glad she has a bed at all – Randy is only 18 and barely getting by. She also says what’s the problem with spooning together all night?
One day Leo offers to swap her queen size bed with Randy. Leo is not simply between girlfriends, she never seems to have any – too busy working up her next gig. Alby is excited to sleep in Leo’s bed, even if Leo isn’t there. She and Randy have been bickering all day, and Randy is still a little huffy when they lay down, so Alby has to actually work at it to get Randy interested. Near the end, she keeps reminding herself to stay quiet, not because she worries about making noise but because she’s afraid she will say Leo’s name.
Alby hadn’t known Leo might have a crush back on her until last week. Francie let it slip, saying that nights when Alby isn’t there they sometimes all ask Randy questions about what Alby is like.
Uh-hmm, Francie giggles.
In the morning Alby joins the coffee drinkers on the balcony. Coffee is all there is in the house. It’s chilly out here but the direct sun on her skin makes it bearable. Her cheeks are taut with dried eau d’Randee. When Leo suggests they all walk down the block for breakfast, the first thing Alby does is wash her face.
Next she buttons up the striped men’s shirt she got at St. Vincent’s, then steps into her white painter overalls. Her underwear is more of a debit than an asset at this point. She turns her ragg wool socks inside out to get another day out of them and laces her Vasqs tight. Since they are only going a block, she’s leaving her pack here, and in it her 9 mm. The steel toes of her Vasqs will have to be enough. She stands at the head of the stairs, considering the breeze coming up from the street, and goes back for old faithful, the baggy red wool pullover that is necessary even on (especially on) summer mornings in San Fran.
Her hair is too short to do anything but stick straight out, a dark walnut plush.
They’re all on the street waiting for her. Randy puts an arm around Alby’s waist inside the overalls. Alby’s other side is free, and she’s hoping Leo will claim it, but Francie scoots under Alby’s arm first. Leo takes left wing, and they sweep down the sidewalk. At 5’7”, Alby is six inches taller than any of the rest, and in public with her gang she often feels like Dorothy in Munchkinland. A very rough-looking Dorothy, with Munchkins who eat cunt.
No one mentions where they are going because it’s a given. Since Alby first started coming over, it’s always the Bakery Café. A year ago, a German establishment fag bought it and promptly fired all the waiters. Full of righteous honor, Alby and the others walk past the picket line that lasts for a few weeks, making a production of eating elsewhere. Leo calls the new owner “Gunter” and does a goosestep for the fired waiters, who cheer.
But restaurants where women are welcome are hard to come by in the Castro. The new waiters at the Bakery Café never make them wait half an hour just to get a menu like the snotty boys in some of the more expensive places. And breakfast is still a deal here. There is bacon for Alby, blintzes for the New Yorkers, and their non-political friends go there. After the picket line dried up, they wait almost a month, then sneak in as a group one Sunday morning without discussion or eye contact.
Before they reach the doorway to the Bakery, even Alby’s sleepy gaze notices a difference on the block. There are poppy-colored flyers on the wall around Hibernia Bank, across the street at the Chinese food place, and wrapped around poles. The Red Queen must have been out last night.
Alby and her friends know who the Red Queen is: One of the boys Leo went to camp with in upstate New York, Naphtali, is roommates with a man named Arthur. Arthur is a bespectacled Socialist faggot who will never pass as a Clone. Periodically his disillusionment with a movement that had such promise a decade earlier spills out of him in brilliant scathing diatribes which he prints on scarlet paper and wheatpastes all over the Castro. He uses the name “Red Queen” to keep everybody guessing. Alby loves his acid view, his battered hope, his East Coast rhetoric.
They stop by the nearest flyer, stapled to a light pole. Leo and Francie crowd in, and Alby touches Leo’s shoulder with her fingertips. Leo doesn’t look around. She has to get close to the print to read it – she refuses to wear her glasses – so to make up for blocking their view, she reads it out loud in one of her funniest voices.
But this one isn’t funny. This one is about how gay men are getting sick, are coming down with an impossibly rare form of cancer. One boy has even died from it. The Red Queen says something is afoot. He thinks there is a government connection. He thinks maybe it’s something in Rush or Locker Room. His words are almost shrieking. Alby stays with him until near the end, when he claims this cancer is contagious – can be spread from man to man.
Leo turns to face them. Alby feels a chill at her core, but she won’t show it to Leo. Instead, she rolls her eyes. Everybody knows cancer is NOT contagious, it wouldn’t be CANCER if it were CONTAGIOUS. Leo grins uncertainly. Randy is holding on tight. The Red Queen has really lost it this time.
Leo says, But the poppers thing, that sounds possible.
Alby agrees, Yeah, who knows what the fuck’s in them. But not cancer. And if there were something really contagious, we’d have heard, even from our fucked up media.
Randy says, No, not cancer.
Alby adds, Besides which, they only OD on poppers because they’re obsessed with sex, what do they expect?
They walk on into the restaurant.
-© 2008 Maggie Jochild; written 4 June 1999
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
In the autumn of 2003, I wrote an essay which was published in Voices For Racial Justice, a book produced by Evelyn Street Press in conjunction with the Racial Justice Program of the YWCA of Greater Austin. Edited by Sharon Bridgforth and Jennifer Margulies, this essay's demands on me as a writer became a work of solidifying my foundation that year. I share it with you after the fold.
LOVE THEM WHERE THEY LIVE
In October 1997, the U.S. government made a decision to change how it collected racial and ethnic data, allowing people for the first time to identify with more than one race. There are now seven major categories of race, which can be arranged in 63 different combinations. But, when I am asked to check a box, I check only "White.” And when I joined the Racial Justice Writer's group, being trained by Sharon Bridgforth in her "Finding Voice" method, I began answering her rigorous questions of self-identity by saying I am white, primarily of Scot descent, with a known mixture of German, Welsh, English, Cherokee and Kiowa.
I lived through the late seventies when a sizable minority of my white progressive cohorts, overwhelmed by the reality of racism and racial division, reacted either by bringing to the forefront of their identity a single ancestor of color or by simply attempting to "cross over", to no longer claim the race they were born and raised. They birthed or adopted children of color in order to have intimate relationships with non-whites. They flocked to powwows and crashed other gatherings intended for people of color to have a breather from dominant white culture. They said they didn't "feel white,” had never felt white "inside.” I was not one of these people, but I understood the hunger to deal with the lie of race as a construct by transforming my own identity. I wish it were that simple.
It's not the boxes that are the problem. Adding on new boxes or switching boxes is still, as Audre Lorde says, trying to use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house. It's the definition of the boxes, the value attached to them, that poisons the world into which we are born.
Since 1609 my people have lived in the South. My parents are the first generation to not earn a living by farming. My parents were raised rural poor; my mother was orphaned just as the Depression was starting and raised by her aunt and uncle. They married just as World War II ended but did not experience the post-war economic boom that is the myth of the 1950s. My father chose a line of work in the oil business that kept us constantly on the move, outside and underpaid, a job generally filled by young unmarried men. He refused to give it up until I was sixteen, when my mother had had three heart attacks from the strain of raising us mostly on her own with not enough money sometimes to even feed us.
Twice my father accepted jobs overseas (Calcutta, India and Aracaju, Brazil) because the pay was high and gave us enough to live well while we were in another country, maybe get a new car or housetrailer when we got back. When you are at the bottom of the white scale, the only way to rise in class is on the backs of people of color.
(Maggie and Nilmoni in Calcutta, India, 1958)
We moved 24 times before I was 18 years old. After my mother's illnesses forced him to stop traveling, my father worked at sales jobs, earning even less than before. I went to college on a full scholarship. We always qualified for any form of government assistance but my mother was ferocious in refusing it. As a result of inadequate medical care and stress from poverty, I've lost my mother (died at 56), youngest brother Sammy (died at birth) and beloved little brother Bill (died at 42), and my father, older brother and I are disabled and/or chronically ill. Now, at age 48, I still identify as white trash. I also claim redneck and cracker, and don't appreciate these class-origin terms being used as insults. We deserve a complicated truth. I am currently working class with absolutely no economic resources or safety net beyond what I earn each month. I am terrified about how I will survive financially when I am older.
Like a high percentage of those raised poor, my body has borne the brunt. I have three disabilities, all of them congenital: Bony deformities of both tibia (which my brother Bill also had) that went undiagnosed and untreated until I was in my 40s, which have destroyed my knees and make all weightbearing painful and difficult; moderate to severe lifelong asthma (runs in my family); and polycystic ovary disease, creating a severe hormonal imbalance (excess of estrogen) that results in profuse facial hair, steady weight gain, emotional lability, infertility, periodic severely painful cyst rupture, and high risk for uterine cancer. All of my disabilities would be far less disabling or possibly not a current problem if I had received early medical attention. The reason why I did not was because of my family's lack of money, and the fact that I was a girl child.
I have absolutely adored being a girl and now a woman - not the oppression of the constructed role, but the self-expanded reality of it. I have never wanted to be anything else. I first heard the word and definition of lesbian in 1965, at age nine, and realized with a jolt that that was what I was. I began writing poetry the same month I came out to myself, and have used poetry ever sense as a means of maintaining/expressing my true identity. I didn't find out I could live as something other than a heterosexual or that there were others like me until Stonewall happened, when I was 13. I came out to others at age 15, when I had my first lover. The lesbian-feminist movement saved my life and gave me my core values. When I was 17 I found out that the great love of my mother's life had been a woman named Mary Nell, and that when Mary Nell broke her heart, my mother returned to men as a means of never being hurt that way again. When I was 40 I found out that my mother's mother had also first loved women, and had chosen to marry my grandfather only because she could not be with the woman she loved. I don't believe that homosexuality is genetic, I think it is chosen, but do see a strong thread in my maternal emotional heritage predisposing me to be woman-identified.
I became a comother to a 2-year-old daughter when I was 17. She has been married to both a woman and a man. She has now given me two grandchildren, a boy and a girl, both of them mixed race and being raised working class in Dallas, Texas. Their experience of race in the United States will be different than mine.
I left the U.S. when I was six months old to live in India, and returned in 1958 when I was four. I remember, soon after returning, going to a five and dime with my mother in Lafayette, Louisiana. Down one aisle I spotted a black woman. I slipped away from my mother and followed the woman. I just wanted to see where she went. I can remember feeling almost desperate to find out where she went. Even then, I thought maybe there was a secret doorway into the other world. I think this belief is common to a lot of white children.
At the back of the five and dime were two water fountains. One was big, and clean, of shiny metal. The other one was much smaller, of cracked porcelain with lots of stains on it. The woman I was following went to the small water fountain and took a drink. When she was done, I stepped up to it and tried to drink from it, also. Despite it being lower to the ground, I couldn't quite reach. The woman was staring at me. I turned to her and asked her if she would lift me up. She just walked away, very fast. I could smell her fear.
A second later, my mother swept frantically around the corner and grabbed me, followed by a store clerk and a big white man. She hissed at me, "What are you DOING?" I told her I was trying to get a drink. She carried me over to the other water fountain and pushed the button. I said, no, I wanted to drink from the little fountain. Mama shushed me and hustled me out of the store. When we were in the car, she explained to me that I could not drink from the "colored" fountain, it upset people. When she called it that, at first I was even more determined to drink from it -- was the water colored? Color was good, as far as I was concerned. But when my older brother began laughing at me, taunting me, and my mother told him to shut up, I was suddenly ashamed. And scared.
Mostly my mother explained things to me without using pejoratives. (Thank you for telling me the truth about the water fountain, that it would upset white people if I crossed the line, not that it was wrong to cross the line.) Mostly she insisted that all human beings were the same, a rhetoric not borne out in consistent practice but still a rhetoric giving me a sliver of ground to stand on. She had a fairly enlightened grasp on racism for her time and location. But she had to fight my father and older brother constantly to keep certain language out of the house, and while I sided with her, I went on being scared of white people. I think everybody is scared of white people. I don't know if that's true, but it looks that way to me. And when I start from that theoretical assumption, I have the most success as a writer and an activist.
But, the greater truth is, I don't know how to talk about racism in my life without starting way before I was born. I know my family tree, more than most people do. I decided it was my business to know, and was aided in this by the ethos of my mother's family which runs contrary to the white Southern working class belief that what you don't know won't hurt you. This side of the family also has a saying: "Don't ask folks where they are from, 'cause if they are from Texas they'll tell you right away, and if they aren't, there's no need to embarrass them."
My ancestors on my mother's side came to Texas when it was Tejas, agreeing to become citizens of Mexico, then immediately participating in the land grab of the revolution. My ancestors on my father's side rode in the land runs in Indian Territory, displacing already displaced Choctaws. Before that, on both sides, they were Scots or Germans or Welsh who relentlessly pressed westward from Jamestown, Charleston, the Shenandoah Valley, indentured servants who bought their freedom, sharecroppers who became small landowners, white men who married North Carolina Cherokees or Kiowa women. Any black Baysinger/Basinger from Tennessee is my cousin, from my great-great-grandfather Nep Basinger and his grown brothers who owned -- and raped -- African women. But I am clear that the line coming down to me is the line that shook out on the white end of things, that chose race privilege, theft, rape, exhausting the land and moving on, as means of trying to climb the ladder. They are quintessentially European.
Here's a fact: Every single male in my family --direct line, siblings, cousins, any relation at all -- between the ages of 12 and 70 (this is no exaggeration) who was alive at the time of the Civil War enlisted in the Confederate States Army. We're talking about hundreds if not thousands of men and boys whose blood runs in my veins. I know their names, I know where they lived and what units they served in. For my direct line ancestors, I know where they were killed (though not always where they were returned to earth), or what kind of crippling they carried away from this war. Until I was ten, I didn't understand the war had ended ninety years before I was born -- the way my people talked about it, I thought it had happened shortly before my birth. It has gone that unresolved for us.
Of those Confederates, maybe 10% owned slaves ever in their lifetimes. That's about average for Southern whites. We fought for an economic system that was never going to reward us directly, and yet was the only way of life we could imagine. My people were hardscrabble, hand-to-mouth farmers. While I can't say any of them understood racism in a modern sense, some of them knew what was wrong with the culture they claimed as their own. I believe every white alive then knew, deep down, that they lived cheek by jowls with an evil. I believe the dissonance and unpredictable violence of white poor Southern culture stems equally from our own position near the bottom of the shit heap and our secret recognition that we are, even so, living in a way that shovels shit over onto those one layer down from us. I love my people. I have chosen to betray them out of heartbreaking love. I think I am the hope of my line because of that betrayal.
From one perspective, I am a sport, a rogue, an almost incomprehensible divergence from my heritage. I have looked long and hard at the reasons for my apartness -- coming out, living in India and Brazil, my mother's brilliance, books, Tikkun Olam, disability, those North Carolina Cherokee who infused us with a nonexploitative connection to nature and a fierce appetite for learning the truth, being a baby boomer, the salvation of lesbian-feminism. But, I have to say, it is likewise true that there is a strong current in me of being exactly the product of my heritage. I am the result of generations of people taking maybe just one risk, one step out of bounds, and surviving the punishment long enough to produce the next generation.
I see my primary job as a human being committed to ending ALL oppression and misinformation as that of bearing witness. I believe others will tell me what they want and need if I just listen hard enough. I think this requires of me a profound spiritual practice, a dedication to learning everything I can, living a good life, pushing myself to experience discomfort, speaking the truth even when (especially when) I am terrified, and following the Quaker dictum of "Proceed as the way opens."
(Maggie, summer of 1982, Bean Hollow Beach, south of San Francisco)
I left Texas when I was 21 because I could not see how to learn and live here in a way that fed my soul. In March of 1985 I attended an Eliminating Racism workshop led by Ricky Sherover-Marcuse in the San Francisco Bay Area. A large number of the people who attended were exiled Southerners. Golden California draws this country's refugees. At one point, Ricky got me up in front of the group to work on my family, my heritage, as a means of illustrating the need for whites to know themselves (not just assume we are the "default"). It was a watershed moment for me. Afterward, an African-American woman I didn't know came up to me and said, "I was relieved to see you loving your people. You all need to love each other, and stop expecting us to do that job for you. And I'm asking you to consider moving back to where you came from -- when you flee to the cities and the coasts, you leave all the rest of the country to the white people you have a hard time loving. But MY people have to live in those places, too. I'm asking you to not huddle here in safety -- go back and love your folks where they are stuck."
It took me four years to get the resource together, but I did what she asked. She was right. After that, it took me another seven years to adjust to the change I'd made. Too many of the Southern white writers who think and write about racism are doing it from places like New York, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago -- they don't come back home. And thus their perceptions are out of date, inauthentic, tinted with nostalgia and stereotype, unredeemed by distance. I moved back to ground zero for my people, to love them and heal them up close, to write about us with hope and humor.
This is my purpose, as a poet: To imagine a world that has not, before now, existed and share it in such a way that the reader can use it to imagine HER version of a world that has not, before now, existed. With regard to writing about racism, I must tell the absolute truth about my people, the kind of truth we/you have been starved for. I have shaped my day to day life so that I can recognize and report pieces of this truth.
So, I listen. I bear witness. I believe that if every single of us is contributing to the discourse, we'll create a good way of life. I show up. I practice the words of Fran Winant: "Eat rice/Have faith in wimmin/If I learn first/I will teach you/If you learn first/I must believe you will come back to teach me." And I proceed as the way opens.
(Carole, Dawn and Maggie at Texas Lesbian Conference, Houston, Texas, 2000)
[Note: Since writing this essay, my father and older brother have also died from health issues related to poverty. I have also discovered distant Choctaw ancestry, on my father's side.)
© 2008 Maggie Jochild.
Matt Harding has a new "dancing all over the world" video.
I am crying uncontrollably every time I see it. Too many thoughts to chain together coherently...
I notice when the people who join him include no women or girls: That place in the world has us locked down from free expression of our humanity. Too many places like that.
Tonight on PBS I watched Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. This is a documentary made by Katrina Browne, descendant of the DeWolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island. She, along with nine other members of her close and distant family, confront their legacy as the largest slave-holding dynasty in U.S. history. They "retrace the Triangle Trade and gain a powerful new perspective on the black/white divide."
It's the best film I've seen about the reality of how America's wealth is based on human trafficking and centuries of pathology. As one of the DeWolf cousins eventually comes to say, "It was evil they did, they knew it was evil, and they did it anyway." This is especially true for the North, which controlled slave trade in the U.S. but managed to "buy" their way into no longer being held accountable by claiming they fought the Civil War to end slavery.
The emotional and spiritual process experienced by this family is shown in detail. By the end, they are able to also begin naming their class privilege, and to undertake action of reconciliation and reparation. The African and African-American voices in the film, especially that of co-producer Juanita Brown, also play a serious role in its development.
Do whatever you can to watch this film. See if it is being re-run this week on your own PBS channel. The PBS P.O.V. trailer can be viewed here.
From the website: "The issues the DeWolf descendants are confronted with dramatize questions that apply to the nation as a whole: What, concretely, is the legacy of slavery—for diverse whites, for diverse blacks, for diverse others? Who owes who what for the sins of the fathers of this country? What history do we inherit as individuals and as citizens? How does Northern complicity change the equation? What would repair — spiritual and material — really look like and what would it take?"
Last night I received an e-mail from a very distant cousin who also does genealogy who found our shared lineage posted at RootsWeb. She says there is an error in the pedigree I was given by another researcher, in the Davis line. If she's right, then I am possibly not descended from Captain James Davis of Jamestown, who was one of the first white colonists on this continent and one of the men who in 1619 decided to buy Africans as slaves, the first in America.
I've spent my entire adult life owning my heritage and doing the work of atonement. James Davis has loomed large in that landscape. If he is removed from the picture, I wonder what will shift.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
(Emile Norman and Brooks Clement)
I watched the PBS documentary tonight Emile Norman: By His Own Design, and it sparked a wave of thought in me about art, long-term lesbian and gay relationships, and the limits imposed on artists by class and gender.
Emile Norman is now 90 but still actively working and living in the stunning, hand-built home atop a hill outside Big Sur that he created with his lover/partner Brooks Clement in the 1950s. Brooks has been dead since 1973, but they had 30 years together. During the 1950s and 1960s, they were openly gay, and their home was a refuge, a magnet for all kinds of creative people.
(Emile Norman waves from tower atop his Big Sur home)
Emile is an innovative sculptor/muralist who relies on nature for most of his symbolism and themes. He dropped out of art school after one day and pursued his own path during an era when abstract expressionism was all the rage. When Norman and Clement moved to Big Sur in 1946, Brooks told Emile "You go into the studio and I'll show the world what you're doing." It was a deal that made Emile successful and happy. The two men were inseparable, excellent companions and at the heart of a wide circle of friends. When Emile became too old to safely live alone, a pair of young gay men (Jeff Mallory and C. Kevin Smith) moved in as caretakers and forged family.
The documentary was produced by Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker, neighbors and friends of Emile. You may remember them as the husband-and-wife lawyers who immortalized the imaginary "butterfly kiss" on the TV series L.A. Law. It's a good film, interspersed with home movies from Brooks and Emile plus letters written about them by another neighbor, a young married woman and mother who visited constantly. The two men found freedom to be themselves in an era when few did, and the story of a sculptor who has been able to live by his art for 84 years is rare.
Equally striking to me, however, was the contrast between their good luck and the stories of other equally gifted and innovative artists who struggle with isolation and poverty. In particular, I wonder if two gay men of color would have found the welcoming attitude Emile and Brooks did. I doubt the Masonic organization whose mural represents Emile's largest work would have given him a commission if he had been non-white. Or a woman.
(History of San Francisco mural at Union Bank of California, by Emile Norman)
Lesbian artists of any ability are much less likely to be treated kindly by rural neighbors (even in a liberal place like Big Sur) or the arts community. They must contend with continuous sexism, veiled and incidental as well as outright violence and predation. If one of a pair of women is attractive by conventional standards, the men who enter their circle are likely to hope for a sexual conquest -- all dykes really want, after all, is the right cock, either from a manly man or, these days, from another queer. Or so the myth persists.
And with denial of access to circles of influence comes poverty. No chance to live atop hillsides, commune with nature, avoid wage-earning, and travel for inspiration.
(Solarium in home of Emile Norman and Brooks Clement)
Paula Gunn Allen died last month, far too early, with inadequate support at the end of her life. She had managed, while contending with her cancer, to buy a mobile home for herself (all she could afford) but it and most of her belongings were destroyed in a fire not long before she died. A lesbian of color poet, novelist, historian -- once the short-list for Pulitzer -- one of the greatest minds of our generation, but her death brought no public memorials that I've seen outside a few feminist blogs. And not even the Generation X blogs. It's as if she never existed.
I'm deeply glad Emile Norman is getting deserved recognition. I'm even more happy for the apparent happiness of his life. Still, it's not the face of minority art and artists. Not nearly enough.
(Polar Bear by Emile Norman)
Sunday, June 22, 2008
Good news/bad news. Mostly good.
I did NOT get a Netroots Nation scholarship, despite receiving 45 votes and being somewhere in the top 10-15 votegetters (from a field of 30 scholarships awarded).
However, the support I received from ya'll simply blew me away. The things you said about me, the folks who turned out to stump for me -- it was jolting and made me take another assessment of myself. All in the most positive way.
And: I'm still going to Netroots Nation.
How? Because Jesse Wendel and the Robinsons (Sara and Evan) have come forward to pay my way. This includes the conference fee, which was offered a reduced rate by Democracy for America (THANKS, DFA!), rental of a power wheelchair for four days, transportation to and from the conference site, and all my meals. It's a done deal. I'm going.
Which means more than I can ever know, much less express. But I'll try, nonetheless.
When I began my own blog, I became interested on a whole other level in what other bloggers were doing. I became a critical consumer of writing, thinking, and strategy as it is presented on the web. I was looking for people who knew how to express themselves without negativity or denial, who researched and made deep connections, who believed in the goodness of humanity and allowed that to come through even when they were reporting on our worst behavior, and who were capable of addressing multiple (all) issues simultaneously. I wanted to read the thoughts of someone who meant to change the world but not from an ego-driven perspective.
Eventually, I found Orcinus and Sara Robinson. Every time I read one of her essays, I felt bells go off inside my head and I wanted to call all my friends, say "You GOTTA hear this". She invariably took on the fear and distortion present in fundamentalism and this country's Right with calm, intelligent, bold clarity. She wrote and thought better than I did. (I don't suffer from false modesty, just to be frank, here.)
Finally, I wrote her a fan letter. She, in her deliberate way, checked me out and passed on the information to her colleague at Group News Blog, Jesse Wendel, who also began checking me out.
All I can say is, thank g*d I didn't throw up a post about how scared I am of alien abduction or Sasquatch. (Just kidding.) (Kinda.)
At any rate, after a while Jesse came after me. See, Jesse is someone who has put in the time to sort through his male conditioning, deciding what makes sense to retain and what is counter to his best interests. He's figured out that being direct and assuming responsibility are admirable human traits, when scraped clean of self-righteousness, gender myths, and power grabs. It's a relief to be around in any form, male or female.
And I, on my part, have put in the time to sort through my working class conditioning, weeding out my fear of exploitation and distrust of my instincts. So, when he came after me, I said "Sure, let's talk." When a powerful equal approaches you and offers to work in tandem, you have everything to gain by saying yes.
I've had nothing but growth and increasing liking since. Don't underestimate liking; at my age, I think it's the most important outrigger of love, along with respect.
So, these folks are building a bridge from me to who knows what. (In an almost literal since: The route from my apartment to the convention site is almost a straight shot down Congress Avenue across the Ann Richards Bridge, as good a symbol as my poet heart could wish for.)
Please send them your thanks, your energy, your attention. Their writing and works are making an untold difference out there, as well as in my life.
And, heartened by this possibility, this turn of events, I've finally taken the step to add a Pay Pal button to my website. I can now accept donations. I'm not a tax-deductible entity, just needy. If you do make a donation, please tell me who you are and let me thank you directly.
Thanks for reading this far. You'll be hearing a lot more from me about this conference in the coming month. Summer is now officially launched, and so am I.