I don't remember Arthur Russell. In fact, I'd never heard of Arthur Russell until a week ago, one of my sons gave me a CD of his small folk pop tunes, his friend is writing about Russell, and it was all news to me. I looked him up, started reading about him, a wide ranging musician, friends with Allen Ginsberg, alternative musical compositions, cello, pop tunes, David Byrne, a victim of AIDS at age 41.
You see, I may have been dancing on a few lit floors, colored lights, but where I was dancing the audience wasn't shouting back Yes! to the Loose Joints when they sang "Is It All Over My Face?," they weren't dancing to that song, it wasn't on any radio station I listened to. I thought I'd heard disco music, but I'd never heard a cello in a disco song, I don't think I'd heard trombones, either, and I know I hadn't heard the double entendre of is it all over my face. "Is it all over my face,"
You caught me love dancing,
Is it all over my face,
I'm in love dancin'.........
Is it all over my face, the fact that I'm loving this dancing, that's what the words meant, but is it all over my face, a crowd of men dancing, gay men, 1980, before the fall, is it all over my face, that audience knew the second meaning and as they danced they shouted back, Yes!
I'm not sure I listened very closely to the lyrics of those disco songs I knew back then, but I'm doubting I ever heard the implicit darkness that I hear now in Russell's 1978 underground hit, "Kiss Me Again," long, repetitive, but minimal in a very advanced sort of way. The vocalist, a woman, sings the lines, but there's a detachment, given what she is singing, "the wind blows,"
the clouds wave, am I a woman or a slave?
Oooh baby, is this the woman I want to be?
Kiss me again, kiss me again, kiss me again........
There's a subversiveness to this disco music, this is not John Travolta, the straight man at the center, leading, strutting, no, this music is off, it's anticipating things that are coming, it's queer. So queer, the producers of "Is It All Over My Face," when they discovered what Russell had given them, quickly remixed it, removing the male vocals and replacing them with a female, so that we have the Male Version, original, a little harder to find, and the Female Version, less rough around the edges, more widely heard. And now, with time, with the years having past, this music is all about places that don't exist any longer, the Garage and the Loft, a world that is gone, a sexually liberated world, men in New York asserting themselves, taking hold of their sexuality, but just before things change, they don't know what's coming, they are dancing all night, is it all over my face they are singing, I'm in love dancin..................
Some people said they knew, some people said they always knew. That felt odd, it felt odd to be told that someone always knew something that you didn't always know, especially because what they knew was about you. Or, at least, they always thought they knew. And now turned out to be right. Because you were now telling them they were right.
A new and gay minister, at his first meeting with parish council, was delighted to meet me, how good to know, he later told me, how good he thought, there's at least one other gay man here. A woman, partnered with another woman, recounts her first introduction to me, years ago, at a party, I liked the gay guy, she told her partner later that night, he was funny. He's married, she informed her.
Oh, I always knew that, says the wife of a cousin. A longtime friend, we were work colleagues as well as family friends, I always thought that, she tells me. A friend from graduate school, we are seated at a table in a small, hip restaurant, I am spilling the beans, and he tells me, my wife and I, when we got the invitation to your wedding, so many years ago, we opened it, looked at each other and said, well, I hope he knows what he is doing.
It's odd, really, odd how everyone knows what you don't know. Or aren't sure about. Or haven't settled with. Because of course they didn't really know. They only thought they knew. They could have been wrong and only thought they knew better. But now, now you are telling them they were right.
Harvey Milk saw it as political action. Our duty, really, our political duty to cause change. "You must come out, " he challenged us,
Come out... to your parents... I know that it is hard and will hurt them but think about how they will hurt you in the voting booth! Come out to your relatives... come out to your friends... if indeed they are your friends. Come out to your neighbors... to your fellow workers... to the people who work where you eat and shop... come out only to the people you know, and who know you. Not to anyone else. But once and for all, break down the myths, destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake. For their sake. For the sake of the youngsters...
Well, he may have been right, and perhaps it sways votes. But I know I never saw it that way, not then, and maybe not now. I may have been telling them, I may have been coming out, I may have been telling them what some of them already thought they knew, but it was mine to tell. Or not to tell. And just as I wanted the right to tell them when and if I chose, I also wanted the right to know whether it was true or not.
They were sure. They knew. But they didn't really know. They only thought they knew.
I know the darkest nights of the year mean the light is about to begin growing again, it means the days will soon begin to get longer, I know that. I like the light, it cheers us up, it keeps us going. I know all of that, but I also know, on Christmas Eve, this darkest of the nights, I know that I need the dark.
Because it's only really in the dark, the deepest of the dark, that I can talk at all to God.
I'm sort of a skeptic and there's a lot I don't believe, and I don't care for people making up rules and telling me they are God's rules, and it seems a little crazy to me to say that one group of people were given all the truth about God and the rest of us weren't, but in the dark, well, in the deepest dark, that's when I'm able, if I'm able at all, to talk with God. The dark that erases time, removes location. The dark that could be now or later, the dark that could be here or there. It's in that dark, and especially that dark in the darkest time of the year, and maybe most of all, in the darkness at the end of Christmas Eve, that I can not only talk to God, but imagine God, imagine God without what I've been told about God, just God in the dark.
It's in that sort of dark that I come to God not as a father, not as a middle aged American, not as an architect, not as a runner. I come to God not as a liberal, not as a writer, not as a brother. I come to God not as a gay man. I don't really come to God at all in the deepest dark, I'm just there, just here, just sitting there in the dark.
Merry Christmas, all of you. Be well.
And I'm glad that we are past the boy from Texas. That needed to happen. But change, real change, well, I know and you know that really hasn't come. And I'm feeling more cynical about politics than at any time in my life.
I don't really like cynicism, I don't really approve of it, it's wasted emotion, it doesn't push on and make things happen, it gives in. But I'm feeling cynical, it's been creeping in, its like a low level virus, like regret, like vengefulness, the feelings that don't really do much for us, but there it is.
The fierce advocate for LGBT issues does nothing about gay soldiers, does nothing about the defense of marriage act, urges activists to pull out of Maine where they are fighting for marriage equality and give him a hand with a billionaire Democratic governor in New Jersey who has lost his own constituency. I mean, we knew he didn't support gay marriage, but didn't we think he really did, he just wasn't telling? And the leader who says our economic health is linked to reform of the health care industry gives away the store, leaves us with a bill the insurance companies love, and requires everyone to give in to those insurance companies or else pay a fine to the government. I mean, didn't he keep telling Hillary he couldn't support a mandate on people too poor to pay?
And the man who receives a Nobel Peace Prize too early, he isn't humble as one might have expected, he doesn't say, wait, this is wonderful but please, give me time to achieve what I want to achieve, no, he goes to Stockholm, this man of peace, he accepts this prize he knows comes too soon and his address, one half of it, is devoted to war. A justification of war, a man recieves a Nobel Peace Prize and defends his war.
To be really honest with you, I don't know where to turn at this point. That's where this feeling of cynicism is arising from, this sense that we did what we could and here we are. Stalemated. No place to turn. Who should I vote for next time? Who should I make phone calls for next time? Who should I send my money to next time?
I used to live in Holland. In Holland, in my days, you could tell something about the person sitting next to you on the tram by the paper he held in his hands. There was a newspaper for everyone and you could choose your public identity by your selection of a newspaper. You could the same thing with your political party. There was something for everyone. It didn't mean you got what you want, not at all. But it meant you had somewhere to turn.
I don't like thinking this way, I don't like it at all, I prefer the cheering and the honking horns and the feeling that change was on its' way. Cynics told me he wasn't going to change anything, he just wanted power, he wasn't even a progressive. But I was cheering nevertheless. And now I'm not so sure. Not so sure at all.
I was maybe twelve, maybe thirteen, who knows now, and sometimes my mother would take me into Boston and show me the different neighborhoods. I loved Beacon Hill, that was my favorite, with the rows of townhouses, the gas lamps, the brick sidewalks, wreathes at Christmas. Up the narrow streets, small gardens, turn the corner and a glimpse of the Common.
“This is where I want to live when I grow up,” I would tell her.
She liked that, she liked that I enjoyed these city places, she liked that I wanted to know these things she knew, swallowed them up really, took them in. “This is where the Brahmins live,” she explained to me, Beacon Hill is where the old Yankees live, like her, except with a lot more money. Massachusetts Republicans. Moderate Republicans. Like her.
One day she told me she wanted to show me another neighborhood, nearby, but on the flat, no hill. “It’s a little secret,” she told me, tucked away, only people that know the city know about it. It’s just like Beacon Hill, she said, same houses, only without the hill and not so expensive.
She was right. It was also beautiful, gas lamps, brick sidewalks. The houses must have been built at the same time. But it was hidden, only a few streets, you might stumble upon it, but you could drive right by on the big roads and not know it was there.
“This is the place for you,” my mother told me, “Bay Village. Just like Beacon Hill but not so expensive. A secret little neighborhood.”
My mother was a Bostonian. She knew all the neighborhoods, she knew the windiest corner, and she most certainly knew, though she didn’t tell me, her thirteen year old son, that Bay Village was more than a little neighborhood tucked away and out of sight. That it had a history in this city, that it was an open secret. A secret history that anyone who knew the city well at a certain time would have known but perhaps not told you about. And that someone today might have no idea about.
Because, you see, as I learned many years later, Bay Village was, for many decades, the neighborhood with the bars that had no sign at the door. Secret places, or perhaps open secrets. Places you slipped in through the front door and headed toward the back, perhaps that is how it worked, I’ve no idea, quietly slip in through the front door and find your way to the basement, or the back room.
Where the queers gathered.
I mean, everyone knew this, and sometimes the places got raided, there was a certain kind of decorum being maintained, an open secret that needed to remain secret in some way. Bay Village, I suppose it suited the need perfectly, it was charming but tucked away, someone had to steer you there, let you in on the secret.
You can still find it today, it’s all still there, charming as ever. You might say it’s gentrified, it’s certainly well kept, but there is still a trace of the illicit in the air, this corner might be a place for streetwalkers, if there are any any longer, you will still find Jacques, a tired club with drag queens. And you will still find gay boys walking into their well kept homes, but no one would call it the gay neighborhood. Not anymore.
But my mother knew the city very well. She was born and raised there. She knew all the secret little neighborhoods. Bay Village, she told me one day, letting me in on a little secret perhaps, one day when I was twelve or maybe thirteen, that’s the neighborhood for you, she said.
Perhaps you know, because you read an earlier post under a different name, a post that isn't posted any longer, that I have a history of not only stopping writing, but of destroying my writing. As a child, burning it in a barrel. As an adult, throwing it all out with the trash. Secretly. As if any of the writing held secrets that no one should know, or would be shocked by. Or damaged by. When, in fact, none of that was the case, and yet there it is, that I destroyed it.
And still, here I am, at it again. Writing, this time without cover of pseudonym, and not without some trepidation. A writer who stops writing, repeatedly, a writer who destroys his own writing, repeatedly, well, who can trust such a fellow not to do it again. Not to stop halfway and disappear on you.
But there must be something in this act of writing, this act of writing with the expectation of someone reading, there must be something in it that keeps bringing me back. And perhaps it really does have something to do with secrets and that even if there are no shocking events being revealed, nevertheless, if the writing is worth much at all, if it's worth anything, something is in fact revealed.
So you are reading a writer who posts things and sometimes takes them down for a little while, gets brave again and posts them another time. A writer who is enjoying the freedom of writing anything that comes his way, openly, without hindrance of hiding, but who is not quite used to this freedom. And this sort of revelation. Not a writer a reader can fully trust, or depend upon. But a writer who loves to write and wants to be read. Without further destruction.
But I never called it queer. I mean, queer, that was a word carefully imprinted on me. My mother told me when I was quite young that I was not to use that word. She hinted that it was derogatory, and that of course only fed my interest in the word. Queer, over time I began to gather, didn't just mean odd, it meant homosexual. And, then, over the years, it began to mean more. Not just homosexual, but something broader, not derogatory, but defiant. An alternative way of looking at things, crossing gender lines perhaps, challenging the way things are. I was reading, reading always and began to be aware of the concept of queer spaces, places where gay people could gather, pieces of the public domain that queer people had claimed. A close friend of mine told me one day, I'm not gay, I think of myself as queer.
And, then, not so long ago, I came upon a reference to something Herbert Muschamp, onetime architecture critic for The New York Times, had written about 2 Columbus Circle, he'd written it back when a few brave souls were trying to save this much maligned building, grant it Landmark status and keep it from being mangled in a proposed renovation. Those few brave souls, they lost, the building was renovated, but Muschamp wrote a kind of elegy for it. He called it a queer building and he thought a building that queer really ought to be saved, even if it wasn't great architecture.
Because it was queer, and because it was a kind of physical manifestation of the growth of queer culture in New York during the fifties and sixties. And because he loved the building. He saw in its brazen historicism and its interiors done up like a nightclub, its galleries full of sighing Pre-Raphaelites, a tangible expression of the challenge queer represented. "Aubrey Beardsley engravings," he wrote,
"Victorian bric-a-brac, Art Nouveau and Art Deco ornaments, Fortuny fabrics, faded Hollywood
stars: these artifacts were signs in a code, adopted before openness about homosexuality
was possible. The love that dared not speak its name had learned to scream through
I don't like tacky objects. I abhor clutter of any kind and I would be very happy in a monk's cell. Truth be told, I've been happy in a monk's cell, though I was never a monk. I like sleek Italian furniture and I would live in a sleek apartment with glass walls if I had enough money. I love abstract painting. But I know what Muschamp means. Those abstract expressionists were a macho bunch, weren't they, they drank excessively and they womanized. And Lever House and the Seagram building, they were cool and elegant, no doubt, but they were also embodiments of the corporate culture, they were male and they were straight and they were all about power.
And I guess, if there is an opposite to those Mad Men, well, 2 Columbus Circle might serve reasonably well as an example. Sort of the queen of Columbus Circle, a mundane tower done up in Venetian drag. Queer, I suppose you might say. Not only an affront, but a proud one.
Of course, I shouldn't speak of the building in the present tense. It's gone, only it's frame survives. And these days, what with the hate crimes in the newspaper, and the good people of Maine not behaving so well, and now the American Christians assisting the Ugandans, things aren't looking so great for the home team. So, tacky though she may have been, I find I'm missing the old queen. Just a little.
You see, it was World Aids day recently, and on that day I didn't just think about the aids epidemic and people in Africa. You see, I am of a certain age. And so I started thinking about the young men, boys they were really, just graduating with me back then, and heading for the big city. It was different back then, and it was a small college, and the gay boys didn't really come out there, they waited, they waited until they were in the big city. And then they came out. But they didn't just come out, you see, they came out and they walked right into it. Completely unaware. It was the late seventies and the early eighties and they moved to New York and they moved to San Francisco and they came out and they walked right into the unknown disease.
But I didn't.
Because I didn't come out. Oh, I moved to the big city, but I didn't come out, and that's another one of those long stories, but the point is, the point is right now that I didn't come out and I didn't walk right into it. And that fact, that little story of my life, that I was there but I wasn't involved, that is one of the strangest things of my life. That I didn't come out, and I didn't walk right into it.
Now, I know a lot of gay men my age, and they came out, and they walked right into it, and they didn't get sick. And I am enormously grateful that I have them with me today. But I remember the ones that aren't still with me, some of them I remember as lost friends, but more I remember as colleagues in a community I had not yet reached. And my feelings, my thoughts, my emotions, about being there, but not being there, are very confused.
I'm troubled by that incident at my alma mater but I'm heartened by the open dialogue and the thoughtful discussion. They will figure their way through this one. It won't keep me up at night. No, if anything keeps me up at night, it will be the thought of those young men, boys they were really, just graduating back then with me, and heading for the big city.
It was early in the scandal, the revelations were just appearing in the Boston Globe, and I remember that morning very well. Priests had been raping children, there had been settlements, hush money you could call it, numbers of priests, and the silence was being broken. The first names were appearing on the front page of the newspaper, a list, as I recall, and there he was. Father Barrett. I remembered him, I was a kid then, I was about ten or eleven when he came to our church.
How could I not remember him. He was the cool priest. Young. I think he may have started the folk masses, you know, with guitars. I can't be sure. I'm sure he set up the youth basketball team. Two of those settlements I was reading about in the paper, two of them, they involved Father Barrett, with boys from my church, something about a cottage in Maine.
I've been thinking about Father Barrett a bit these days. I mean, it's not as if I knew him well, I'm not sure he even knew who I was, certainly nothing ever happened with me, it was all news to me that morning with the paper. But I've been thinking about Father Barrett a little these days because I've received an invitation, an invitation from the Pope. He wants me back again.
You see, I'm not a Catholic anymore. There's a long story there, too long to tell right now, but I've had a meandering journey out of the Catholic church, I tried being an atheist for a few years, though I was more of an agnostic, and I did my thing with the Unitarians for a very long time, but it never quite felt religious to me, and I ended up home with the Episcopalians. You know, the Anglicans, Church of England. I mean, I found myself with the Episcopalians really because I encountered some Anglican monks and that was really it for me. Lots of incense, no pope, and a hard headed, progressive view of God in our lives.
But there's some trouble in the Anglican church these days, there's this bishop up in New Hampshire who has a male partner and he isn't shy about it, and lots of Episcopalians are upset about this, first they allowed women to become priests and now they've got gay bishops, and all hell has broken loose. But the Pope, the Pope sees some advantage to this, a way to heal an historical schism.
He's inviting me back. He's inviting all of us back. He's inviting the Episcopalians to become Roman Catholics again.
Well, he doesn't really want all of us. He doesn't want those of us who support the gay bishop. And I don't suppose he wants my monks. One of my monks, he's also the bishop here where I live, one of these monks just decided that Episcopal priests where I live can perform same sex marriages. That's not the kind of Episcopalian the Pope is after, I suppose. And I guess, to be honest, the Pope doesn't really want me.
It's odd, when I think about it, because I'd been thinking for some time that the opposite should be taking place, that Catholics who were unhappy with their church and not sure where they belonged really ought to take a long look at the Episcopal church, a place they might find familiar in the right ways. Maybe that's what we need now, a big exchange, organized at the highest levels, the Catholics take all the Episcopalians who don't want those fags becoming bishops and the Episcopalians taking all those Catholics who've had it with the hypocrisy and the lies.
I didn't know Father Barrett was having some problems until I read about him that day, some years ago now, in the newspaper. It wasn't because of his troubles that I drifted away from the Catholic church. But it didn't make me feel any better about the place. You may not know this if your parents didn't take you to a Catholic church when you were young, but its not easy to get it out of your system. They've had two thousand years at figuring out how to get deep inside you. But the story of Father Barrett and the other priests confirmed for me that I was never going back.
Father Barrett was not convicted of a crime, there were only those settlements. He ended up in a mental hospital and died in 2008. I don't know his story and I don't suppose I ever will. I was only a boy, I barely knew him. And for that, I suppose I should be thankful.