Small-town Drag

Portlane, Maine had a different smell in the air. It smelled floral, and salty, and fishy, and the air on my skin was wonderful. Every second business advertised lobster in some form or other, be it bisque or sandwich or roll. And, most surprising of all, there were Pride flags everywhere.

“God, I love these north-eastern towns, with their progressive, inclusive attitudes, and their fresh air. I swear, anytime I come to Vermont or Connecticut or Massachusetts, everywhere is perfectly lovely and being gay just isn’t a thing. I always forget what it feels like until I make it back here.”

My sister Sheri smiled. She lives in Massachusetts with her wife and has been out here for years. “It’s pretty great, isn’t it?”

We rounded the edge of Back Cove and headed into the downtown area of Portland. We’d been gabbing constantly, about family dramas and life changes. She and I connect on a deep level, having grown up together, and sharing the experiences of adolescence and life. We understand each other.

Sheri understands why I travel. I spend very little money, in the scheme of things. Plane tickets, lodging, and the ability to just walk the streets of a new place. It’s spiritual to me. It’ grounds me, quiets the demons, awakens my spirit. I write more. I find little pieces of myself. I make no plans, and instead just see what I find. Local coffee shops, hikes, restaurants, and bars. I watch people. I listen, think, center, and get inspired. It’s fantastic what I find what I didn’t realize was missing in the first place. And Portland was already teaching me things.

The night before, my best friend and I had delicious food while listening to amazing jazz music. Then, while he went off to a national forest for a day, I went into deep contemplation mode, something I hadn’t realized I’d needed. At a local coffee shop, I sat with a warm mug and a blank sheet of paper and I set goals. I looked backward and then forward. I watched the cute gay couple who owned the space interact with their customers. I saw a woman with a puppy in her lap seem so sad. I watched an elderly couple take turns sipping form the same mug as they read the newspaper side by side. The ocean air blew in and a falcon soared outside and it was all exactly what I needed.

Sheri and I wandered in and out of bookstores. We ordered mushroom ravioli. I had a nibble of an edible, and then we headed to the local gay club, a place called Blackstones. This was one of those old gay bars, one that had been around for decades, since the late 80s. In a place like Portland, gay people could go anywhere and just be integrated, part of the community. But back when this bar was built, it was a refuge for them, a place to meet other people like them. It had a crowded long bar, a small dance floor with a pool table, and two bathrooms. On this particular evening, they had pushed the pool table up against the wall and turned it into a stage for the drag queens to perform. The room was small but a few dozen people crowded in and I happily took my seat against the wall to watch them all.

2000 miles from home, and in a relatively small city, yet dozens of gay men and straight women (so far as I could tell) were here to watch campy local drag. There were young college guys, heavyset older men, nerds and jocks and yoga instructors, black and white, one man in a wheelchair. Some clutched drinks, some sat solo, some hooted and hollered while others watched the show silently. Many pulled out dollar bills to toss up on the stage when they wanted to show support.

The first performer was a drag queen that I gathered had been performing at this bar for literally decades. She called herself a transexual (a label that should only be used when the individual chooses to use it), and clearly had had breast implants. She held one arm to her side protectively, and as time went on I realized she had likely had a stroke of some kind and was performing her in spite of it. She was likely in her mid-60s, and she opened the show in a blonde bob wig and a sparkly dress, lip-synching belted out Barbra Streisand tunes as she strutted up and down the stage posing. She came back in a new dress and wig for a Lady Gaga medley, then later in a school girl outfit to sing Oops, I Did It Again, by Britney Spears. She was… adorable. Startling. And clearly having the time of her life.

“She is living her best life,”: I whispered and Sheri laughed and agreed. I can only hope to be living my truest self when I reach that stage in life.

Three other drag queens performed. One desperately needed help with her costuming and makeup, but my word could she sing. Another wore skimpy bathing suits as she did agile stunts across the floor. The last looked drunk and like she’d dressed with her eyes closed; she missed many words while lip-synching, then belched into the microphone when she was done. I winced, then laughed loudly. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Sheri and I walked the two miles back to our lodging afterwards. Tyler was already in bed, and Sheri and I were sleeping in the living room on mattresses against each wall, like we were kids having a sleepover. We talked idly in the dark, about how much the world had changed for each of us. She fell asleep with a fidget toy in her hand.

As I drifted off, I became aware of the rain on the roof. I fell asleep to the steady percussion, my heart lost in the unfamiliar.

300 Biographies

I’ve read over 300 biographies.

The last several years of my life have been dominated by biographies, in fact, in all their forms. Some are slanted political narratives, meant to illustrate pros or cons in the life of a certain person. Some are densely researched tomes of knowledge, with 200 pages worth of sources and cited works at the end. Some are fluffy, feel-good autobiographies, written by a famous person who wants to keep their secrets, while other autobiographies are caustic tell-alls.

I hand-select many of these books, setting goals for myself to learn about key individuals from important times in history (examples: Joe McCarthy and Chairman Mao), or to learn about people who have become my personal heroes (examples: Sally Ride and Barbara Jordan), or to uncover areas of personal passion like feminism (examples: Bella Abzug and Coco Chanel) or LGBT history (examples: Freddie Mercury and Bayard Rustin). Yet other books, I choose completely at random, closing my eyes and pulling them off a library shelf. Some of these are fluffy life anecdotes by people trying to capitalize on temporary fame (examples: Bristol Palin and Caitlyn Jenner), others are forgotten tomes on former celebrities (examples: Christine Jorgensen and Richard Wright), some are fascinating historical epics from unique voices (examples: Natacha Rambova and Guglielmo Marconi), while others are slap-your-knee hilarious and leave me devouring every word (examples: Minnie Pearl and Davy Rothbart).

I could write one hundred thousand words on reading these stories. Every shade of humanity from every corner of the globe, the only thing these 300 individuals have in common is they have either taken time to write their stories or someone has been interested enough to write about them. And they, strangely, all share a commonality, whether they are an Iraqi war refugee in the present, a 1950s American movie star, a prominent Civil Rights activist, or British royalty from the 1800s: they all encompass a simple yet complex human life. No matter what their lives were or are, no matter how consequential to human history, I learn the same lessons from every book.

  1. All human lives are temporary. Every passion, problem, struggle, endeavor, and conquest is relegated to ‘something that happened’ at the end. Nelson Mandela’s decades in prison, Rock Hudson’s wrestle with AIDS, Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, Judy Garland’s pill addictions, Gilda Radner’s battle with cancer… all things that just happened.
  2. Everyone gets older, one day at a time, until they aren’t there anymore; we all start and end somewhere. Brigham Young was a carpenter before he was a religious leader and statesman, Patty Hearst was a lonely heiress before she was kidnapped, and Gypsy Rose Lee was the forgotten child before she perfected her stripping act.
  3. We all see the world through our own eyes, and we all generally believe we are right during the time we thought it; we all usually change our minds as well. Slim Keith married Howard Hawk before she divorced him, Tig Notaro suffered through the cancer before she told jokes about it, and Gloria Steinem had to learn about women of color and their struggles through hard education.
  4. There is a lot of sad in the world, and there is a lot of happy, and this leaves me wanting to learn from the sad and to embrace the happy. I feel the heartbreak of the parents of Trayvon Martin and I celebrate the legal victories of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I ache for the once kidnapped Elizabeth Smart and I rejoice at how hard Tina Fey can make me laugh.
  5. Our heroes tend to be those who triumph over difficult, even impossible, odds and inspire us with their stories. Greg Louganis won his Olympic medals, Charlie Chaplin made incredible films against all odds, and Sonia Sotomayor inspired a generation after being appointed to the Supreme Court.

I tend to get through about one book per week. I read when I travel, and some of my favorite books have become tied into my personal experiences. I can’t think of Kay Graham taking over the Washington Post without remembering that six hour flight with the crying baby, the execution of Joe Hill makes me think of coffee and rainy Utah days, Evelyn Nesbit’s tragic rape takes me to the sidewalks of Liberty Park, and the deportation of Emma Goldman brings back the hot sun of a Mexican beach.

I’m learning from history. I’m finding new heroes. I’m learning to be outraged at history and injustice, and I’m learning how to live in my own now and create a better life for myself. Books and stories make me want to be better, be more, to live my dream and to make a difference. I have learned to love writers and their craft, and I let them fuel my own writing and research. I love libraries. I love the pressure I feel to get through a stack of new books. I love learning about both my heroes and the unknown. I carry books with me pretty much everywhere. I read between sets at the gym, over breakfast, and before I fall asleep. I usually have a book-on-tape playing in the car. I want to absorb everything I can, lose myself in the stories of others, and I want to emerge a better person on the other side.

I want more books. I want to read them all. One at a time, as I live my life, I want to read each and every story out there.

library

Monuments

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I’m a product of everything that has come before me. Small and large, historical and irrelevant. I’m a composite of human history, events and decisions that shaped my destiny for thousands of years before I was ever conceived on this small planet. Political revolutions, marriages, tragic deaths, wars, the founding and dissolutions of nations.

Sheri (my younger sibling, and the other gay member of my family) and I (a gay father of two sons from Utah) pulled through the small town of Sharon, Vermont, watching for the sign announcing the birthplace of Joseph Smith. It felt strange for the two of us, both no longer affiliated with the Mormon church, to be stopping here. We were road-tripping through Vermont, however, headed from Brattleboro to Burlington, and when would I ever be near Sharon again.

We drove past small farm houses and a few small local businesses. This was clearly a small community. (A quick Google search confirmed that the town population was 1500). The season, in mid-November, was shifting from fall to winter, swiftly. The leaves were no longer changing, already shifted to a deep brown and most of them on the ground, just a few left clinging to barren branches. A breeze blew outside the windows, stark and biting, over the small rolling hills outside. It was lovely.

Finally, we found the turn to the homestead where the prophet Joseph had been born. How well I recalled the narrative. Toward the end of his short life, Joseph Smith had released an official account of his life from his perspective, in which he recalled growing up with hard-working parents on a farm and having been born in Sharon, in Windsor County, Vermont. The family had moved when he was an infant, and had gone on to New York, where, in Joseph’s adolescence, he encountered a period of religious revival, and he had to decide which church to join. According to his account, he prayed for truth, and was visited by God and Jesus Christ themselves, in glowing, floating, resurrected bodies, and they told him to join none of the churches and instead to start his own. I’d practically memorized this account as a young Mormon missionary 20 years before. As we drove through Sharon, I wondered how differently my life would have been, over a century later, if Joseph’s parents had stayed in this small town instead of moving. Would there ever have been a Mormon Church if they stayed?

We pulled down the large driveway toward the homestead. There was a small branch of the Mormon Church there, a cemetery of ancient graves (with no names that I recognized), a home (where the man who managed the estate lived), and a small visitor’s center. I could see Christmas lights wound around the trees of the grounds, not lit up, and realized they likely did a local Nativity scene here at Christmas time. Pleasant gospel music played over the speakers. I immediately thought of other Church history sites I had visited, most prominently Temple Square in Salt Lake City, where it felt the same: manicured lawns, Christmas lights, church music.

Back behind the center was a large monument to Joseph, a giant pointed structure towering into the sky, and a sign near it talked about how the monument had been built out of one single stone. Plaques adorning it told the story of Joseph, and golden writing wound around it quoted James 1:5, the scripture that inspired Joseph to pray for God’s revelations in the first place. “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God…”

“It looks a lot like a penis,” Sheri whispered, though no one was around to hear.

“Oh yes. Men and their phallic architecture,” I laughed back, and we looked around. There was a trail off to the side, brown and winding through the woods, that led to the site of the Solomon Mack homestead; Mack was a Revolutionary War veteran who’d lived in the area. It was a mile hike, but it was far too cold to venture into the woods. Just the day before, Sheri and I had visited a similar site in New Hampshire where a woman named Madame Sherri had built a “castle” in the woods, entertaining there for decades before the place burned down.

Sheri and I stood facing the woods. “Sometimes I wonder what future generations will think. Whose names will they choose to remember. What markers and monuments will be placed from our times. Or will it all just be ruins and dust, leading archaeologists to dig up our remains and wonder who we were.” We contemplated that for a bit before going into the visitor’s center.

Inside, we were greeted by Elder Abbot, a nice man from central Utah who was serving an 18 month mission in Sharon, greeting visitors. He told us the local branch of the church had about 80 active members in a 60 mile radius. “The church isn’t that strong in this area, but we are sure working on it!” He told us that in the summer and around Christmastime, the center gets hundreds of visitors daily, but in the off-seasons, only a few per day. “Church members don’t really come here. Honestly, there isn’t a lot of relevance to this place for us. Joseph was only born here. Nothing else momentous happened.”

Elder Abbot led us into the central room, where we saw a large statue of Joseph, a library of church books in glass casings, and giant pictures of Jesus Christ and Thomas Monson, the current Mormon prophet. We looked around for a bit, done after a couple of minutes.

“Can I take your picture in front of the statue?”

Sheri and I, still bundled up in our winter gear, sat next to each other, giving small smiles for the picture. When he handed it back, I zoomed in on our faces, our expressions clearly underwhelmed. Behind us were tributes to Christ, Smith, and Monson, the three men (all white, of course) that our birth family most revered. They were still looking over our shoulders, promising to judge our lifestyle choices in a weird way.

We walked out, thanking Elder Abbot with a handshake, and got back in the car. “Hey, remember that time the two gay ex-Mormons went to the birthplace of the founder of Mormonism, and they were totally bored?”

We laughed together, driving out of Sharon, but my thoughts turned to origins and long-term decisions, and I couldn’t help but wonder what my actions now meant for generations down the line. Then I clicked open my phone and realized the monument to Joseph was a Pokemon gym and I laughed even harder.

Asking for Money

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I hate asking for money. I’ve never been the type to ask for money. I’ve always been the kid who paid his own way and who contributed to others.

As a teenager, I worked after school to save up money for my mission. On occasion, I would slip extra money into my mother’s purse to help her pay for groceries. Sometimes at work, I would clock out early and keep working because I felt like it would help the owners out. I even made a deal with my local comic book shop where I would work for free and be paid in comic books, so I could keep reading them without spending money.

In college, I used student loans for my tuition and books, and I had a full time job to pay for my housing, meal plans, transportation, and leisure. It took me years to pay all those off. Even now, in my 30s, I run my own business and pay all of my bills on time, helping out others when I can.

I don’t think I’ve ever, as a standard, asked for a cent or expected anyone to provide for me.

But making art is impossible without money.

Years ago, I wrote a comic book. I hired artists myself and printed the book myself. But when expenses ramped up, I asked for financial help for the first time. I ran a campaign through the website Kickstarter and promised people prizes in exchange for donations to printing the book. I was able to raise about $1000 of the $5000 I needed to print the book, then I charged the rest on my credit card. The money I made from book sales barely paid my card off. Overall, it was an exhausting process, but I got to see my book in print and share it with others, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Now, a few years later, the Mushroom Murders remaining copies fill boxes in my basement.

And now I’ve reached a place where I’m not asking for $5000, I’m asking for a few hundred thousand dollars. I’m making a movie, and movies take money.

A few years ago, I discovered a forgotten man, a gay Mormon guy who was violently tortured and killed for being gay, back in the late 1980s. No one remembers him, and I want him to be remembered, because he was special and authentic and his life was cut short, and because no one ever deserves to die like that. I started seeking out his loved ones. I researched the lives of the men who killed him, and I started meeting their loved ones as well. The story is insane, with so many twists and turns. It’s a story about being gay and Mormon, about murder, about the death penalty, about miscarriage of justice. It’s a story about people whose lives were altered forever because they lost a loved one, or they saw a loved one go to jail, and it’s a story about how they moved on with their lives and yet how they never moved on.

The last few months, I’ve travelled all over Utah, and into Nevada and into Montana (where I write this from) to interview these amazing, brave people. I have a professional film crew at my side, talented filmmakers with top-notch equipment, and they believe in the project too.

Making this movie fills me with passion and creativity. All of my skills, as a father, as a social worker, and as a writer, come to the forefront as we tackle this wonderful and painful project. I shed tears and my heart aches as I weave these pieces together, but I come alive doing it because it is work that simply must be done.

This is a story that has changed my life, and has placed an entirely new path before me. This is a story that can change the lives of others, one that when they view it will alter their views, make them reach out to their loved ones with messages of ‘I love you’, one that will help them live for today and want to make a difference in the world.

Yet, without money, I’m self-funding the project, charging trips to my credit card because I believe in it, because I believe in myself. With this approach, the project will take years instead of months. And facing that fact gives me angst and anxiety.

And so a big part of my journey in 2017 has been learning how to ask for money. I’ve had dozens of meetings with influential people who I hope will share my passion on the project. I’ve enthusiastically and passionately described my journey and the told the story with conviction. And literally every one of those dozens of meetings has ended the same way. Every person has said some variation of this:

“Wow, Chad, this story must be told, and you are the one to tell it. I don’t think I can help you, but I think I know someone who can. You need to speak to this person. Let me get back to you.”

And then crickets. Silence. Attempts at follow-up resulting in avoided phone calls, unanswered texts and Emails, and general silence.

Yet still, I’m moving forward. The interviews we are gathering on film are so authentic and powerful and real, and we will keep going forward.

Asking for money is painful and aggravating. It’s so difficult to not get discouraged. I keep finding ways to maintain my passion and enthusiasm. It feels like going through an endless maze and I just keep hitting dead ends, requiring me to retrace my steps and find new paths only to hit more dead ends. I’m determined, and I won’t quit, but I find myself regularly stalled and flummoxed when I want to be moving forward, ever forward.

And this, I realize, is the plight of the artist, the dreamer. Every writer, actor, musician, conductor, filmmaker, painter, sculptor, public speaker, and inventor who has a similar passion has to find a path forward against the odds until they find someone who shares their passion. They want a platform, an opportunity, and a benefactor to help them live their dreams.

I won’t quit. And I’ll keep asking. Because the alternative is not asking, which means the dream dies.

And this story must be told. I’m honored to be telling it.

Burned

abinadi

I can see myself up there

High on a mountaintop

(“A banner is unfurled”

the familiar sing-song lyrics autoplay in my head

by rote

and I squelch them swiftly).

From such a vantage

I could view the entire valley

with perspective

and see all the corners and shadows

that have given me life.

In them, I would find my heritage,

equal parts handcart and homophobia.

 

The streets are quiet up here

Full of newly-weds and nearly-deads they say

because history is changing and people with it.

Those who built these sidewalks

are no longer the ones treading upon them.

 

The street signs bear Mormon names.

Zarahemla: fictional capital city,

Cumorah: hill full of secrets,

and Abinadi, a man I once admired

because he allowed himself to be burned to death.

 

My back is to the city now

and all is rustling leaves

and birdsong

and one lone cricket

and sunshine on my skin

and I think of how I was carried here

by pioneer women

and how I almost

let myself burn.

Polygamy, second generation

Joseph Smith first introduced polygamy in 1831, shortly after he established the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Depending on your view point, he either was commanded by God to marry dozens of women, and he did so reluctantly, or he really wanted a lot of wives and he used religion as an excuse to obtain them.

Joseph had his closest allies, such as Brigham Young and John Taylor, who became the next two prophets and presidents of the Church after Smith was killed, take extra wives as well. In 1835, Smith published a revelation from God that condemned polygamy, even while he was practicing it. The leaders of the Church began expanding the practice, even as they publicly denied it, and more and more men and women were encouraged, at times coerced, to enter polygamy. There is evidence that shows Smith, and others, used coercion, or their influence as church leaders, to marry women, some who were already married to other men.

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It wasn’t until 1852, when the Mormons were settled in Utah (then not part of the United States) that Brigham Young publicly acknowledged polygamy, and then made it a standard practice. Young, who had more than 40 wives, talked about it as a divine principle; one man spreading his time, money, attention, and energy among the number of wives he took in. Members were taught that in order to be holy and in good standing, they had to participate, and if they didn’t want to, they were called selfish or sinners; all faithful members should want to enter these complicated family systems because it is what God wanted.

The United States was outraged, and began to work tirelessly to shut down polygamy in all United States territories (as Utah wouldn’t become a state until 1896). In 1862, polygamy was deemed officially illegal, but the Mormons thought their religious status protected their rights to practice it. The case went to the Supreme Court, and in 1878 it was deemed that even for religious institutions, polygamy was illegal. But by this time, there were thousands upon thousands of families in Utah practicing polygamy. And men as they aged continued taking young virginal wives, some 14 and 15 years old marrying men in their 60s and 70s. But it wasn’t until 1890 that the fourth Mormon prophet, Wilford Woodruff, publicly stated to Mormons that polygamy shouldn’t be practiced. But families were now into their third generation of polygamy; children who were born into polygamous households now had grandchildren becoming fourth wives. And polygamy was still being practiced. In 1904, the Church again had to remind members not to practice polygamy anymore, but it still continued happening, and then again in 1920, the Church finally made it grounds for excommunication. By this point, polygamy had been practiced for approximately 90 years, and it continues to exist in many communities in 2016.

Ida Hunt was born in a central Utah town in 1858. In 1882, she became the second wife of David Udall, a local church leader who already had a wife, Ella. David and Ella were reluctant to be polygamous, but a personal letter from the prophet of the church, John Taylor, told David that he wasn’t setting a good example for the Mormons who followed him, and told him that all Church leaders were expected to be polygamous. So David married Ida in 1882 . Ida became pregnant. And then David, by all accounts a good man, went to jail for polygamy. Ella was left with her children without support, and Ida had to go into hiding with her daughter so they couldn’t use her as a witness against David.

Doing the math here, it was four years AFTER the United States declared polygamy illegal even in religious institutions that the Mormon prophet was encouraging/coercing leaders to take more wives. And 8 years after the marriage of Ida and David that the Church first said it was no longer a sanctioned practice. I recently read Ida’s published journals, her accounts of living on her own, without support or husband, for years as she had to stay hidden while trying to provide for a child. President Grover Cleveland eventually pardoned David, and Ida named her first son after the president. She ultimately had six children. She spent the next few decades, strained financially and having problems with Ella, and David struggled financially with both. Ida died in 1910 of a stroke, far too young. David and Ella ended up married for 50 years before their deaths.

Reading her words, I was struck by her thoughts about the United States government. She expressed again and again how she felt Satan was influencing the government, forcing adversity against God’s Saints, forcing prejudices against the holy order of polygamy. These beliefs were backed up by her local leaders. She never once saw the institution as illegal or morally wrong, because she had been raised believing it was right.

I was raised Mormon. Polygamy was always something in the shadows. Mormons still believe it to be an eternal principle, something that will be practiced in Heaven, men with multiple wives. They tone it down to soften the blow, saying things like it is only in place so that women who never got a chance to have husbands will get the chance in Heaven. All that said, nearly every Mormon I know is a little disturbed by the practice; it elicits discomfort and sadness when it comes up in conversation.

At the same time, I see the same defense mechanisms that Ida had in place with Mormons today as well. I hear excuses about how Satan is influencing the government to do things like make gay marriage legal, and how Mormons have it right with traditional and Celestial families. These same arguments were likely used during the Civil Rights era, and during the “women’s liberation” movement.

Ultimately, though, the Church comes around. Polygamy was declared illegal, blacks were given the Priesthood, and in time, gay marriages will be allowed, in some measure that will allow the Church to save face.

What makes me most upset, however, are the lives lost in the balance. The young mother hiding with her child while her husband is in jail, the black child growing up believing he is less than his white peers, the gay couple keeping their relationship a secret so they won’t be excommunicated. The consequences of these teachings in family last entire lifetimes, and in the generations that follow. Even now, there are thousands upon thousands of families engaging in polygamy secretly, feeling it is their religious obligation to do so, and blaming the government for persecuting them.

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the Gay Library

I’ve been researching LGBT history for several months now. I read biographies pretty constantly, generally chosen at random–in fact, I’ve read about 100 of them now, and I’m consistently inspired by the stories that I learn. It was a few years ago when I started realizing that LGBT people show up in nearly every story, nearly every facet of society. Natalie Wood was surrounded by gay friends, Oprah Winfrey had a gay brother, Richard Nixon interfaced with gay reporters and politicians, J. Edgar Hoover himself was believed to have been gay and a cross dresser. Facts kept showing up again and again and again.

In many cases, the stories of LGBT people were ones I should have been taught in school. Bayard Rustin, a prominent leader in the Civil Rights movement, was gay. Barbara Jordan was a black female lesbian senator in Texas, and she investigated Nixon after Watergate. Sally Ride, first woman in space, was gay. Playwrights, singers, artists, performers, activists, world leaders. All names that I knew, just never taught that they were gay. These stories needed to be told.

And so I launched a YouTube channel, after months of planning and research. Every name that I looked up taught me about another 3 or 5 or 10 people I needed to research. I compiled lists of hundreds of names. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, allies and enemies, and the history around them, including works of fiction and government policies. I started sharing the stories online, one per day with enough to last years. The research was all out there, I just had to dust off the right resources, one at a time, to make it happen.

So when I went to Los Angeles, for a little head-clearing adventure away, I learned of an entire library devoted to LGBT topics, and I knew I had to see it. Yet another long bus ride across town (the transit is not great), I finally wound up on the campus of USC (University of Southern California) and entered the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries.

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ONE magazine was formed by a group of brave queer activists in 1953 and ran for several years, making information available to the public about LGBT lives, theories, and studies, beginning to normalize LGBT lifestyles in the public eyes years before it was customary to do so. The magazine eventually closed down, and now the Archives were named for it, complete with a large framed wall piece with all of the magazine’s dozens of covers featured.

The space inside was small and very well organized. Shelf after shelf, row after row, all dedicated to LGBT books. Periodicals, art books, coffee table pieces, biographies on famous LGBT individuals, LGBT fiction, erotica, novels and short stories, almanacs, research compendiums. Upstairs were framed photos celebrating past activists from the area.

I talked to the woman at the front desk for some time, asking about the history and organization of the place, and told her of my current projects. She was kind, interested, and helpful in orienting me to the space.

I walked down the long rows almost lovingly, overwhelmed by the entire space. I contemplated my upbringing, not even knowing the word gay, and when I did learn it, I knew it was something bad and immoral, something to be scorned and avoided. But to be here, seeing it all archived, compiled, celebrated… it was thrilling, moving, and awe-inspiring.

I pulled out books at random, scanning through their contents and enjoying every word. I chose a few and spent a few hours perusing. There wasn’t nearly enough time. It would take a lifetime to read every book. I purchased a few small ones that I could carry home, thanked the librarian, and headed outside, where I sat in the sunlight and thought of this part of the world’s history that has become a new quest, grateful to know there are resources out there I wasn’t aware of previously.

Poisoned Peas: Strange Facts about Washington

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32 things you didn’t know about George Washington:

  1. George Washington received an unanimous 69 electoral votes for the office of president.
  2. He was not inaugurated until 1789, several years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.
  3. The colonies initially wanted to elect him King before creating the office of president.
  4. He did not get along with his vice president, John Adams, and gave him only minor duties. This trend has continued with vice presidents right up until modern history.
  5. George was 6 feet, 2 inches tall, much taller than the average at the time.
  6. George was a 4th generation American settler, in that his great-grandparents had settled here.
  7. While pregnant with George, his mother, Mary Ball, saw a young woman violently killed by a lightning strike while sitting at a dinner table.
  8. Remember that cherry tree story? “I can not tell a lie?” Never happened. Made up by a future biographer.
  9. George’s father, Augustine, died when George was 11. He also saw siblings die and had a house burn down.
  10. In his will, Augustine left George a plot of land and ten slaves. George owned slaves his entire life and saw them as a sign of wealth and prosperity.
  11. George worked as a land surveyor in his youth before becoming a military man.
  12. At age 16, George was swimming nude. Two teenage girls stole his clothes as a prank, but he was not amused and had them arrested. One girl blamed the other, who received the full punishment, 15 lashes on her bare back.
  13. As a young man, George contracted small pox, which left his face covered in pockmark scars his entire life.
  14. In the military, in one battle, four bullets went through George’s coat without hitting his flesh. He later said, “I have heard the bullets whistle and there is something charming in the sound.”
  15. Martha Dandridge (who grew up on a plantation) married Daniel Custis (two decades her senion) and had four children, though two died as children. Custis made a fortune before he died young, then Martha married George Washington, who inherited all of Daniel’s lands, riches, and slaves, starting him off wealthy (over 17,000 acres of land and 300 slaves).
  16. George never had biological children. He raised his two step-children, and later helped raise his grandchildren, adopting some as his own. George may have been infertile.
  17. George once wrote, “I have always considered marriage as the most interesting event of one’s life, the foundation of happiness or misery.”
  18. George was often known for being cruel to his slaves, keeping them in shacks with dirt floors and buying no clothes for the children, though this was common practice at the time. Toward the end of his life, his heart softened and he worked to keep his slave’s families together, not dividing by selling.
  19. During the War, Thomas Hickey once tried to kill George by poisoning his peas, but the housekeeper grew suspicious and instead fed the peas to the chickens. The chickens died, and Hickey was hanged.
  20. As a military leader, George often wished he was a soldier instead. He once said, “I beg it should be remembered by every gentleman in the room, that I do this day declare, with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
  21. George’s stepson, Jacky Custis, died at age 28 of dysentry, leaving behind four young children. George adopted the younger two. His stepdaughter, Patsy, died as a teenager.
  22. After their victory in the War, George’s men went to taunt the British, but he stopped them, saying “It is sufficient for us that we witness their humiliation. Posterity will huzza for us.”
  23. After the war ended, George repaid his salary and expenses to the colonies without being asked, a sum totally $50,000. He was always exacting in paying and collecting debts.
  24. George had several farms, one called Muddy Hole, and a favorite nephew named Bushrod. In his will, he left Bushrod a famous cane that belonged to Ben Franklin.
  25. George posed for many paintings and sculptures during his life, holding still for hours at a time. He once said, “I am now altogether at their beck, and sit like patience on a monument whilst they are delineating the lines on my face.”
  26. George suffered from toothaches beginning in his 20s, and had all his teeth removed over the years. He eventually wore a set of false teeth, made out of a mix of hippopotamus tusks, gold, and human teeth.
  27. George and Martha had a dog named Frisk and a parrot named Snipe.
  28. A few years before his death, George had a large tumor in his leg that had to be cut out without painkillers. He was bedridden for six weeks.
  29. In 1791, George and Martha briefly moved to Philadelphia with 8 of their slaves. At the time, a law had been passed that any slaves who remained in the city for 6 months were automatically set free. George had the slaves sent back to Virginia just before the time limit was up to keep his property.
  30. In his final will, George stated that all his slaves should be set free after both he and Martha died.
  31. George died in 1799 at the age of 67. Martha died 2.5 years later in 1802 at the age of 70.
  32. In France, Napolean said of George’s death, “This great man has fought against tyranny. He established the liberty of his country. His memory will always be dear to the French people.

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.