Cat-calls and hate speak

At 9 am on Saturday morning, Mike and I were holding hands as we walked down the sidewalk. It was our third day in New Orleans, and we had grown relatively familiar with the city streets around where we were staying.

We walked past a few hotels, one so decked out in Christmas decorations that it looked like Santa had vomited all over it. Girls in fancy dresses walked on the sidewalk with their rich parents, on their way to something called ‘Teddy Bear Tea’. A high school team for some sport or another took up space, all of them on their phones as they stood there idly. And, as you find in any big city, we saw a few people asking for cash and handouts mixed among them.

A small group of teenage girls walked out of the hotel in front of us and turned the same corner we did. They must have been between 17 and 20 years old, and they were dressed in comfortable clothes, shorts and t-shirts, perhaps heading out on a quick coffee run. As we approached the corner, I noticed two men sitting on some steps in front of an entrance to an apartment walk-up. Both were African-American, one probably sixty years old, the other around forty. They were engaged in an animated conversation, then they looked up at the girls walking by.

“Ooooooh, girls girls girls!” The younger man said, cocking his head, making a few small whistling sounds as his friend cooed. “Girls!”

The older man turned his full body toward them, his hands on his legs. “My-my-my look at that!” His voice was full of enthusiasm. “What’s your hurry, young girls?”

My brow furrowed in disgust as I witnessed this. I whispered to Mike, “Good God, is this what girls deal with?”

Mike muttered, “Apparently.”

The last of the girls walked by, and the younger man gave another happy moan sound. “Look at that, a tall one! She must play volleyball! Girl, I’d like to spike you!” He spoke loudly and I saw the girl wince. The sixty year old gave his friend a high-five, and my eyes must have flashed fury as I walked by. I briefly considered something, but realized it wasn’t worth it in this context. I simply whispered a ‘Gross’ loud enough for Mike to hear.

The light was red at the end of the block, and we had to wait to cross the street. I was watching the girls, wondering if I should say something to them, when I heard the voice from behind me.

“Faggots!”

I craned my head back in shock, and the younger man looked at me with challenge in his eyes. My jaw dropped slightly. “What the fuck?” I said, loud enough for him to hear me, then the light turned green and Mike tugged on my hand as we walked across the street.

My heart was still thudding three blocks later. “I’ve never been called a faggot before!” I said. “Wait, that’s not true. Like, back in high school, guys would tease other guys and called them faggots. My step-dad called me names, but it was never ‘faggot’. I can’t believe that just happened!”

Ironically, the day before, Mike and I had had a small argument just a few blocks away. We’d seen a group of elderly Asian women with microphones standing on a busy street corner, all chanting out about how Jesus saves, demanding that everyone turn from sin. I’d wanted to hold his hand tightly, to show courage and bravery, and he’d felt nervous, not wanting any sort of uncomfortable confrontations. We’d made up quickly. And yet, here we were being called ‘faggots’ the very next day.

I usually feel safe in big cities. I stopped worrying a long time ago about holding hands with my boyfriend in Salt Lake City; the few ugly looks we got didn’t bother me at all. Most big cities have gay areas of town, kind of like “Chinatown” or “Little Italy”, districts where there were gay clubs and gay friendly businesses. In New Orleans, we were staying near the French Quarter, which was full of loud music, shops, and drunk people, and it was very gay friendly. I counted no less than eight (yes eight) gay clubs within a mile radius of where we were staying. It was the little towns, in places like Wyoming or central Utah, where I get nervous holding hands, or, in other words, being openly gay.

After being called a faggot, I wondered if I should perhaps be more worried, more careful. I’ve been assaulted and mugged on big city streets, not for begin gay, but still. I’ve talked about this in other blogs, but holding hands with a man while walking the streets kind of puts me on an autopilot of defensiveness. It makes me feel like everyone notices. People sometimes notice and then try to act like they didn’t, some act with derision or looks of disgust, and many go the opposite way and go out of their way to be friendly or complimentary. It felt rare to feel, well, not noticed.

The past few days in New Orleans, we’d had a lot of the third kind of experience, the cute looks, the friendly faces, people working hard to make us feel welcome or, perhaps, they are just genuinely happy to see a bit of diversity in their neighborhoods. One woman told us, “Ya’ll are cute!” when we walked by. A heavyset black woman practically stopped us on the street one morning, yelling us down. “Hey! Hey! I wanna hold ya’ll’s hands, too! I’ll go right in the center! Ya’ll need some chocolate in the middle of all that white!” Mike and I had both laughed heartily. And then perhaps the most delightful encounter, when we’d passed a group of college kids on the street, and a tall nerdy white guy with glasses, who was holding hands with his girlfriend, pointed at us as we walked by. “You guys. Whatever this is, I’m into it, I respect it, and I like it very much.”

We kept holding hands as we walked. No one else called us ‘faggots’, that day or any other. Perhaps those men didn’t realize the power of that word or what it represented. Perhaps they didn’t know how we were bullied growing up, forced to play a role in a closet so that we wouldn’t make those around us uncomfortable. Perhaps they didn’t know that during this trip, we visited the memorial of a mass murder right here in New Orleans, where forty years before dozens of gay men had been burned alive in a gay club in one of the country’s worst hate crimes ever. Perhaps he was just showing off for his friend. Maybe he didn’t know what it was like to be gay and holding hands on the street.

But then I remembered that he was black, and his experience being a black man in white racist America, while different than mine, must elicit some of the same reactions. I also remembered the way he talked to those young women. This was a man who didn’t care how others felt, who didn’t look outside of his own experiences. The world was full of wonderful people, but it was also full of bullies. And, I remembered, it only takes one man to hurt another.

And these realizations made me clutch Mike’s hand all the tighter.

Disney Divas!

33076827_10156388421076565_5372137285586255872_n

“This is not a family friendly show! We are chicks with dicks! So for those of you who came and expected not to get offended, I recommend you get over that real quick!”

The drag queen, dressed as Tinkerbell, paraded the stage with her microphone confidently, wearing thick make-up, a perfect green pixie dress, a pair of wings, and a huge yellow wig. She was hilarious, teasing various members of the audience with plenty of swag and sass. “Oh, hello there, Daddy,” she said to a man on the front row, then asked his girlfriend, “are you with him ’cause he’s got lots of money or a big dick?” She teased a girl on the other side, saying she’d be happy to give her make-up tips after the show.

Tinkerbell recounted how, back in the 1950s, she’d been approached by Walt Disney himself, who saw her as a real star, but in the end, he’d cut all of her dialogue from the show, and simply named it Peter Pan, not even using her name in the title. “He knew what he was getting into,” she explained, “so he couldn’t have been surprised when I used a bit of language on camera. All those girls going after my man. ‘Fuck you, Tiger Lilly! Fuck you, Wendy!’ just didn’t play well for the kids,” she explained.

And sitting on the raised seating on stage right, on my uncomfortable stool, I sipped on my gin-and-tonic and laughed my ass off. She really was very funny.

The show had opened with a robust and enthusiastic medley of Mary Poppins songs, a lengthy set of Step in Time, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, and Jolly Holiday, and I sang along with every word. The packed audience sang along, clapping, tossing dollar bills and the drag queens dressed as Mary, Burt, and the chimney sweeps. A girl across the stage and I made eye contact, as she sang along as well, and we shared a smile.

I’ve been to a lot of good drag shows over the past seven years. Drag shows, in my experience, tend to fall into one of four categories. (Well, the professional drag shows anyway, not the ones that are performed on random stages in parks or on Pride weekend). There’s the really amazing ‘female impersonator’ shows like this one, that run regularly, with seated audiences and food and drinks. There are the drag queens who host various tired events and seem to run out of material very quickly. And then there are the traveling drag queens, the late night crowds and dance floors, with long wait times and packed audiences, wall-to-wall drunk people all screaming for every move and shake.

This drag show, the Disney-themed one, was the first kind, the female impersonator show, with a regular cast, incredible costumes, and amazing lip sync performances. Shows like this require set design, painstaking costume design, choreographed routines, advertising, merchandising, themed drinks and bartenders, social media campaigning, state licensing certifications, and a hell of a lot of leadership and organization. I was damn impressed. I’d seen shows like this in San Francisco and Seattle, and to see one here in Salt Lake City running regularly, with changing themes and variable performances, was downright delightful. Just weeks before, we had seen this same cast performing as Dolly Parton, Cher, Katy Perry, Adele, and others, and it had been just as good.

The show continued with drag queens performing Disney songs from every era, with characters like RapunzelMoana, Cruella de Ville, Ariel, Ursula, and others, and the first act culminated in a very bold production of Snow White with all Seven Dwarves. As the second act continued, I was astounded by some of the choices, with songs from CoCo and Frozen. The girl across the stage knew a lot more words than I did at this point, and I gave her a mock bow, recognizing her Disney superiority.

My friends and I had an intermission discussion about which Disney character we most represented, and we had a good laugh as we made our decisions. One said he was Gaston, and I said his husband was likely King Louie. Another couple said they were Prince Phillip and Flynn Rider. I laughed with delight when someone compared my boyfriend to Hades from Hercules, then surprised myself by declaring that I was Prince John from Robin Hood. This was fun, I thought out loud, realizing a group of grown-ups was delighting at men dressed as Disney characters.

Getting sleepy after a few drinks, and a few hours of sitting, and after sitting for more than two hours, I stood back behind my table to stretch a bit and keep myself awake. (I’m always lame like this, getting sleepy anytime it’s past ten pm. It works wonders for my weekend social life). As I watched one of the drag queens perform, I turned my head to the side and saw someone pass through a curtain that gave a peek into the back stage area. I saw one of the performers sitting on a bench, his skirt pulled up over his knees, fanning himself as he waited to go on.

Shortly after that, Tinkerbell (the performer who also played Mary Poppins, Snow White, and Elsa) herself exited through the curtain, making another grand entrance, and gave me a quick hug as she rushed in. “HI!” she said with enthusiasm, recognizing me from social media (I presume). And as I leaned in to hug her, I noticed her thick layer of make-up, and inhaled a mouthful of Aqua Net. As Tinkerbell rushed the stage, I gagged on the hair spray, and couldn’t get the taste of it out of my mouth for several minutes.

The show ended, and for the rest of the evening, I contemplated the professionalism of these performers, giving their all to a crowd out of love for their craft, but I also couldn’t shake the image of that drag queen fanning herself on a bench, or the taste of the hair spray. These performers, like any other, must love what they do, entertaining a crowd. Love it enough to spend hours hand-sewing dresses and lining them up with sparkles, enough to learn the lyrics to long intricate songs while learning routines to go with them, enough to tape their genitals back while wearing contouring and shaping mechanisms before draping themselves in dresses and wigs, enough to spend hours applying and re-applying make-up before every show (and likely hours more taking it all off afterwards), enough to keep their equipment clean and laundered, enough to apply noxious amounts of hair spray to keep their wigs just perfect.

As the show ended, I stood up with the rest of the crowd and clapped heartily, a standing ovation for a show well done, for a group of performers who gave it their all.

the Supper Club

empty-stage-and-micThe walls are purple, and I think what an interesting choice.

I can picture Liberace on the stage years ago, Freddie Mercury and Mae West and Judy Garland and Cher and the Solid Gold Dancers and Joan Rivers, perhaps Merv Griffin and Paul Lynde. I can picture the crowds of men in Palm Springs, gay men who are out and proud, laughing with the wine and beer flowing. Drag shows and thick curtains, late nights and cocaine, alcohol and dancing.

I imagine what Palm Springs must have been like back then, the freedom, the glamour of it all, out and gay, colorful and sexy and exhausting, all those men tired of hiding and now there and free to be themselves.

I’m in a “supper club” in early January, 2016, in Palm Springs, California, and a smile comes to my face as I picture what this place used to be, and then I look at what it is now. Times have changed. Gay people are out everywhere, and with new phone apps they no longer have to go to clubs and bars and health spas to meet each other. But this place has that feel to it, still here, still entertainment-focused, but with such a different feel.

I look over the crowd. Mostly older, and an even mix of gay and straight couples, most of them likely tourists here on the close of their vacations. A couple in their 70s with Irish accents sits at the table next to me, both small and thin, and they have finished a bottle of wine between them. At the table just behind me, an older gay man is loudly telling his friends about meeting a younger man “on the Internet”, something he apparently vowed he would never do, and he boasts at how the sex was amazing. An older couple sits behind me, a man and a woman, who are talking to their gorgeous adult daughter, lauding her for her success as an interior designer.

The waiter makes his way from table to table, clearing plates and refilling drinks. I order something yummy and sweet and cleverly named, and my date gets a glass of wine, and it’s clear the show is about to start. I haven’t been to a stand-up comedy performance in years. My date and I have been seated right next to the stage. I take a sip of my drink and lean over, whispering, “you know the comedian is totally going to make fun of us, right?”

A few minutes later, a woman in her early 50s comes on stage and delivers her routine, something you can tell she has done for years before. She cracks jokes about her difficult past, her daughter being on the straight and narrow, and her judgmental mother who now has selective Alzheimer’s, and closes with a long joke about her grandmother giving her sex advice. It’s corny and fun, and I find myself laughing good-naturedly.

A heavyset man in his late forties comes out next, with his opening line “Hello, gays and gals, I’m only gay on the weekends.” He tells jokes about growing up Jewish and gay and spends plenty of time looking around the crowd, interacting with them and making fun of them. Most of the crowd is buzzed on alcohol now and they are laughing hysterically at the jokes made at their own expense. The elderly Irish couple keep speaking loudly, interrupting his routine, and the comedian takes it in stride, teasing them but being sweet and kind.

“Well, now, who do we have here?” The comedian takes a look at my date and I at our table. “They put you two right up front for me, how nice.” Throughout the evening, he keeps referencing us, talking about us in between his jokes. “I can’t decide which one I want to take home and tie to a chair. Either of you want to volunteer?” Another time, he winks at me, and says “See you after the show.”

Toward the end of his routine, the comedian performs a hilarious version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, as if an overly excited auditioner on a reality television show were singing it. He steps off the stage and promptly sits in my laugh, wooing me a bit to the delight of the audience.

And then soon the show is over. The supper club with the purple walls begins to clear out as people gather their coats, empty their drinks, and head to the door, laughing. I take a moment to sit there, surveying the room, wondering about the history of the place again, getting lost in time for a moment. I once had a psychic tell me that when I enter a building, I bear with me the entire history of the place and the people who dwelt there, and a smile crosses my face as I realize that I’m doing it again, whatever it is.

On my way out, I stop to shake the comedian’s hand, expecting him to flirt again, but he is suddenly very  mild-mannered. He shakes my hand, gives a grin, and says, “I hope you enjoyed the show”, and I realize that he is very different off-stage than he was on.

I take one last look at the purple walls, feeling all of the joy that has been had here, and I wonder what the room is like when it is quiet, when the business closes and all that is left is the history of the night before and the coming of the next show. I carry that history with me as I step into the chilly air outside.