Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 3, 2014

Long Live the Jewel Box Revue

Filed under: african-american,Gay,obituary,popular culture — louisproyect @ 3:43 pm

On Thursday the NY Times reported on the death of a legendary African-American lesbian and gay activist:

Storme DeLarverie, a singer, cross-dresser and bouncer who may or may not have thrown the first punch at the 1969 uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, but who was indisputably one of the first and most assertive members of the modern gay rights movement, died on Saturday in Brooklyn. She was 93.

I encourage you to read the entire obituary but want to hone in on one paragraph:

There was a long period in Chicago, where, she told friends, she was a bodyguard for mobsters. From the mid-1950s through the 1960s Ms. DeLarverie was the M.C. of the Jewel Box Revue, billed as “an unusual variety show.” She dressed as a man; the rest of the cast members, all men, dressed as women. One of the show’s stars was Lynne Carter, a female impersonator who later performed at Carnegie Hall.

As it turns out, I had an encounter with one of the male cast members when I was about 10 years old. This is from the abortive memoir I did with Harvey Pekar (relax, Joyce, this is considered “fair use”):

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 9.33.59 AM

The Kentucky Club was a hot spot in my little village that drew vacationers from all through the Borscht Belt. Buses used to drop off women from the local bungalow colonies and small hotels to take in what amounted to the original La Cage Aux Folles. They loved the Jewel Box Revue, especially the surprise ending when it was revealed that the male MC was actually a woman—Storme DeLarverie.

I refer to the dancer as Miss Vicky but in reality that was just a name I gave the man who was sitting next to my mother. In all likelihood it was probably Don Marshall, one of the few Black men performing in drag at the time (I couldn’t find his stage name).

Since I was only 10 years old when I met Don Marshall, I had no idea what being gay meant although I was quite puzzled to see a man wearing a dress. I barely could conceive of a man and woman having intercourse, let alone people of the same sex. A couple of years later I’d find a copy of “Marital Hygiene” in my parent’s dresser and things would become much clearer.

The best introduction to gay performers can be found at http://queermusicheritage.com/, with news, for example, on the bearded cross-dresser Conchita Wurst who won the Eurovision Song contest. For information on the Jewel Box Revue, go to http://queermusicheritage.com/fem-jewl.html.

On December 4, 2012, Wayne Anderson, a LGBT rights activist and gay veteran of the U.S. Army, wrote about the revue in the Huffington Post. The opening paragraphs:

In 1939, during a time when gay people were viewed as abhorrent subversives and a threat to society, two gay lovers, Danny Brown and Doc Benner, created and produced America’s first racially inclusive traveling revue of female impersonators. It was staffed almost entirely by gay men and one gay woman and was known as the Jewel Box Revue. In many ways it was America’s first gay community.

A recent and insightful paper (http://www.lvc.edu/vhr/2012/Articles/dauphin.pdf) by Mara Dauphin argues that the early drag/female impersonation revues of the 1940s and 1950s were “highly instrumental in creating queer communities and carving out queer niches of urban landscape in post-war America that would flourish into the sexual revolution of the sixties.” And though there were other popular female impersonation clubs, such the famous Finnochio’s in San Francisco and the infamous mafia-owned Club 82 of New York City, with the exception of the Jewel Box Revue, all the revues were operated and controlled by straight people, who were not always very gay-friendly (a notable exception being the Garden of Allah cabaret in Seattle, which featured the Jewel Box Revue as their opening-night act in 1946). Robin Raye, who performed in several early establishments, including Finocchio’s and the Jewel Box Revue, once said of Mrs. Finocchio, “I don’t think she liked gay people, but she certainly knew how to use them.”

In 1955 there were very few out of the closet gays and lesbians. However, there were very many ways in which homosexual identity was conveyed under the radar. I would strongly recommend Vito Russo’s “The Celluloid Closet” for more on this, which can be seen on a Netflix DVD or Amazon streaming.

But for me the closest anything came to an open portrayal to a mass audience at the time was professional wrestler Ricky Starr who wore ballet slippers and minced around the mat before, during and after bouts. He used to toss miniature ballet slippers to the audience as a ritual before each bout. Years later, after Stonewall, gay men would tend to eschew the queen identity but in 1955 it was safer since it was seen more as being a “sissy” then being a “pervert”.

Here’s Ricky versus Karl Von Hess, who some regarded as a Nazi-identified wrestler but who had much more to do with traditional Prussian values.

I recommend a look at Sharon Glazer’s “Professional Wrestling: Sport and Spectacle” on Google/Books. This is a scholarly analysis of the sport that in my view was a lot more entertaining in the 1950s than it is today. Here she is on the classic Starr/Von Hess contest:

Starr’s performance especially his taunting of von Hess, is explicitly (homo)sexual. He wiggles his buttocks under the other wrestler’s nose while pretending to straighten his shoe, performs a series of pelvic thrusts, and hops on and off von Hess’s back, controlling his opponent with apparent ease and leading the commentator at one point to worry half-seriously about the network censors: “Mr. Starr is just loosening up. Nothing wrong with that. With he would loosen up out of camera, though. This is a family network, you know.” As Starr continues, the commentator informs us that Starr was taught his moves by an old (male) burlesque star who went by the name of “Toots” and that: “This program [is] sponsored by bumps and grinds incorporated.” Von Hess snarls and plays it as straight as a villain can under the circumstances. Clearly the loser in the fan sweepstakes as well as the match, he is finally defeated by Ricky Starr’s rapid and proficient series of drop kicks. In a coda to the match, von Hess gets into a slugfest with the referee, which ends when Starr intervenes on the ref’s behalf, taking a hit himself in the process.

Glazer’s scholarly treatment of professional wrestling is matched by Amber Clifford’s dissertation “Queering the Inferno: Space, Identity, and Kansas City’s Jazz Scene” that will be published soon as a book. You can look at it on Google/Books as well. Here is Amber on Storme DeLarverie:

A clear example of how this silence about sexuality is prevalent in the history of male impersonators lies in the story of Storme DeLerverie. DeLarverie worked as a female singer in night clubs before joining the Jewel Box Revue in 1955. The Jewel Box Revue was a female impersonation floor show and touring act. Founded originally in Miami in 1939, the Jewel Box relocated to New York in 1955, where the Jewel Box had its base ofoperations until it closed in 1973. DeLarverie was the only female in the show, and the only African-American member of the Jewel Box Revue. [I have contacted Ms. Clifford on my contact with Don Marshall.] She joined the show as a male impersonator and emcee and gave birth to the Revue’s tagline “25 men and a girl.” Photographs of DeLarverie from the Jewel Box Revue program show a slender African American who looks liken a young man in a slim cut suit and tie, cl close-cropped hair and an inscrutable look, holding a cigarette on a pinky-ringed left hand. The caption reads “Miss Storme Larverie The Lady Who Appears Be a Gentleman”. Throughout the program, photographs of female impersonators show them in both costume and masculine street-clothhig. No such juxtapositional photographs of Storm DeLarverie appear.

Research about Storme DeLarverie and her work with the Jewel Box illuminates several aspects of Jacobs’s biography. First, according to scholar Elizabeth Drorbaugh, DeLarverie avoided any gendered or sexualized labels. DeLarverie’s cross-dressing helped spatialize her as ‘family” in the world of gender impersonation, a position she did not wish to endanger by discussing her own desires shares commonalities with Jacobs, who entered her work as an impersonator after a stint as a singer. Jacobs, perhaps, felt included in the community at Dante’s [a Kansas City drag club], the world she “learned a lot from,” and did not want to endanger that world by revealing her own sexual desires, whatever they were. Another aspect of this question of identity is pivotal to understanding the subjectification of gender impersonators, we cannot forget that they were performers. According to Drorbaugh, performers of gender impersonation resisted being read as one gender or another, preferring ambiguity to identification.

One can certainly understand the need for ambiguity in 1955. The homophobia was so intense you could have cut it with a knife. Let me conclude with another snapshot from my youth:

Screen shot 2014-06-03 at 11.31.17 AMScreen shot 2014-06-03 at 11.31.30 AM

 

May 11, 2014

Michael Sams reacts to being drafted by the St. Louis Rams

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 1:23 pm

April 5, 2014

Reed Elsevier sucks

Filed under: Academia,computers,Gay — louisproyect @ 6:23 pm

Yesterday I spent three hours on the phone with Apple tech support to resolve a problem that had nothing to do with our Mac’s. Out of the blue my wife was unable to print certain PDF’s  around a month ago. Not only would they fail to print either on our Brother laser or Epson inkjet, all other PDF’s would fail to print following a failure even though they had been printable in the past. The first tech support person I dealt with advised reinstalling the operating system on my wife’s IMac, which I did to no avail. On the second call I spoke to a senior technician who worked with me for over an hour to pinpoint the problem. I have to give Apple credit for working with me so patiently. It cost $19 for their support, a reasonable fee given the amount of time they spent. Finally, we discovered that the unprintable PDF’s had this in common. They all originated from Reed Elsevier’s ScienceDirect website. Oddly enough, I was able to print them from my Macbook but my wife’s IMac spit them up. We left it this—as long as we had this workaround, there was no need to investigate any further.

Curious to see if anybody else was having a problem that both Apple and I agreed was exceedingly obscure, I googled “Reed Elsevier ScienceDirect printing problem” and came up with this:

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 11.41.30 AM

Now I have no idea if this is the same exact problem we ran into on my wife’s IMac but something tells me that the Reed Elsevier website is flakey, especially in light of the problems I have run into with the new release of Lexis-Nexis. This is the results set for a search on “Paul Buhle”, the radical historian.

Screen shot 2014-04-05 at 11.46.54 AM

The default sort order is newest to oldest, right? So how come 2008 and 2003 are the years for the first two results in the list followed by those for 2014? When I spotted this bug, I contacted Elsevier who told me that they needed to look into the problem. That was about a year ago. Their fucking sort is still broken. If the programmers at Columbia University produced a software release that was this flawed, they would be fired. Plain and simple.

That’s not the end of it. If you do a Boolean search on “Paul Buhle” and “culture”, you get a results set of 75 articles. But if you do a simple search on “Paul Buhle” that returns 354 articles and then do a “search within” for articles that refer to “culture”, you get 96 articles. This of course does not make sense. They should be identical.

On top of all this, even if the software was not bug-laden, the new interface is horrible. An old friend from academia who was doing research in NY blew his stack working in LexisNexis while he was here. In the past you were able to specify all articles within a one-year, five-year, ten-year range just by checking a box. Now you have to enter the specific dates, which is a royal pain in the ass if you are looking for a bunch of different articles. He wondered if the academic version of LexisNexis that he and I use was deliberately sabotaged in order to drive users to pay for the premium version. I have a feeling that the premium version has the same interface. The only difference between the two is that the academic version has a site license.

Reed Elsevier is the result of a 1992 merger between Reed International, a British trade book and magazine publisher, and the Dutch science publisher Elsevier. You may be aware that Reed Elsevier is he target of a boycott by scientists as the NY Times reported on February 13, 2012:

More than 5,700 researchers have joined a boycott of Elsevier, a leading publisher of science journals, in a growing furor over open access to the fruits of scientific research.

The protest grew out of a provocative blog post (http://gowers.wordpress.com/2012/01/21/elsevier-my-part-in-its-downfall/) by the mathematician Timothy Gowers of Cambridge University, who announced on Jan. 21 that he would no longer publish papers in any of Elsevier’s journals or serve as a referee or editor for them.

Last week 34 mathematicians issued a statement denouncing “a system in which commercial publishers make profits based on the free labor of mathematicians and subscription fees from their institutions’ libraries, for a service that has become largely unnecessary.”

The signers included three Fields medalists — Dr. Gowers, Terence Tao and Wendelin Werner. The statement was also signed by Ingrid Daubechies, president of the International Mathematical Union, who then resigned as one of the unpaid editors in chief at the Elsevier journal Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis.

“We feel that the social compact is broken at present by some publishing houses, of which we feel Elsevier is the most extreme,” Dr. Daubechies said. “We feel they are now making much larger profits at a time when a lot of the load they used to take has been taken over by us.”

Long before the boycott, there were signs that academia was becoming fed up with Reed Elsevier. The NY Times reported on “Concerns About an Aggressive Publishing Giant” on December 29, 1997:

It must have been an extraordinary scene: on Dec. 1, the president of an important subsidiary of the world’s biggest publisher of academic and trade journals, the purveyor of what it likes to call ”must have” information, was politely but firmly told by an important client that ”must have” had become ”can’t afford,” and ”don’t need.”

Russell White, president of Elsevier Science Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier P.L.C., the British-Dutch giant, told a group of professors from Purdue University that the prices of the 350 on-line publications that now supplement the company’s entire list of 1,200 scientific and technical journals could be locked in for three years at an annual increase of 9.5 percent.

What he heard in response could not have pleased him.

Purdue was unwilling and fiscally incapable of absorbing anything close to that sort of rate rise, the professors told him. Moreover, they said, the quality of what they were getting was not worth the money.

Even before Mr. White’s visit, Purdue, which spends more than $1 million a year on Reed Elsevier journals, had canceled 88 of the 803 titles it once received. Among those axed: Brain Research (an annual subscription costs $14,919), Mutation Research ($7,378) and Tetrahedron With Tetrahedron: Asymmetry ($8,506).

”Reed Elsevier journals tend to be second- and third-tier publications, which range from the acceptable to the terrible,” said G. Marc Loudon, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue who attended the meeting. ”None are in the top tier in chemistry, biology and biochemistry, the fields I read in. If we lose Elsevier journals in those fields we will be O.K.

”Why do we want to buy garbage at a 9.5 percent price increase?” he asked.

Erik Engstrom is the CEO of Reed Elsevier. I can’t say that I am surprised to discover that he was formerly the President and Chief Operating Officer of Random House, the publishing house that gave me a royal screwing over the memoir I did with Harvey Pekar. Random House, it should be noted, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Bertelsmann Group in Germany that infamously used Jewish slave labor during WWII.

The chairman of the Reed Elsevier board is one Anthony Habgood, who is also the chairman of Whitbread plc, a British hospitality and food corporation. His work on the Whitbread board must have recommended him to Reed Elsevier:

http://news.sky.com/story/1057059/horsemeat-whitbread-shares-slide-on-new-tests

Horsemeat: Whitbread Shares Slide On New Tests

A leading pub chain sees its share price slide after saying it would impose new tests on all its processed meat products. The Whitbread pub chain, which found horsemeat in its food products, sees its share price fall after announcing a new test regime.

At the close of trading on the FTSE 100, Whitbread’s share price was one of the biggest fallers, losing 3.67%.

The slide occurred after the group said it would impose the new testing regime on all processed meats provided by suppliers and introduce a new system of certification.

Chief executive Andy Harrison said: “We have been dismayed by the recent discovery of equine DNA in two of our restaurant products.

One hopes that when Whitbread embarks on a new testing regime that they are careful not to rely on the guidelines advised by Reed Elsevier science journals that Purdue regards as “garbage”.

Back in 2007 Reed Elsevier finally dropped out of the arms show business after many of its affiliates, especially Lancet, a medical journal that had led the way in detailing civilian casualties during the Iraq war, organized a campaign to bring this lucrative business to a halt. While Reed Elsevier spoke piously about respecting the sensibilities of its mainly academic clients, it is likely that concerns about its bottom line made the big difference just as is the case with Israel and the BDS. The Guardian reported on February 12, 2007:

The Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust said today it had sold its £2m stake in Reed Elsevier because of concerns the publishing giant is stepping up its involvement in arms fairs.

According to the charity two Reed subsidiaries, Reed Exhibitions and Spearhead Exhibitions, have continued to organise arms exhibitions despite the charity’s three-year campaign to make Reed sever ties to the arms trade.

It said the subsidiaries’ arms fairs included Defence Systems and Equipment International (DSEi), held every two years in London and organised in association with the Ministry of Defence.

Finally, this article would not be complete without mentioning the scandal that developed around a homophobic “study” that appeared in Social Science Research, a Reed Elsevier journal. A University of Texas sociologist published an article there that claimed that same-sex marriages were bad for children raised in such an environment.

The article was not properly peer reviewed (Regnerus’s colleagues participated) and was marked by serious methodological flaws as Debra Umberson, a colleague of Regnerus at U. of Texas revealed:

The recent study by my colleague Mark Regnerus on gay parenting purports to show that young adults with a parent who ever had a same-sex relationship turn out worse than young adults with continuously married heterosexual parents (who are, in addition, biologically related to their children). He calls this latter group the “gold standard for parenting.”

But in making this claim, he has violated the “gold standard for research.” Regnerus’ study is bad science. Among other errors, he made egregious yet strategic decisions in selecting particular groups for comparison.

His definition of children raised by lesbian mothers and gay fathers is incredibly broad — anyone whose biological or adopted mother or father had a same-sex relationship that the respondent knew about by age 18. Most of these respondents did not even live with their parent’s same-sex partner; in fact, many did not even live with their gay or lesbian parent at all! Of the 175 adult children Regnerus claims were raised by “lesbian mothers,” only 40 actually lived with their mother and her same-sex partner for at least three years.

Regnerus was recruited to put together this study by an outfit called the Witherspoon Institute that paid him $785,000 for his bogus research. Witherspoon is a rightwing think-tank funded by all the usual suspects: the Olin Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, et al. One William Bradford Wilcox, a conservative sociologist at the U. of Virginia who was hired to do the statistical research, is an editorial board member of Social Science Research. Surprise, surprise.

Darren Sherkat, nother board member of Social Science Research, was asked to conduct an audit of the Regnerus “study”. The New Civil Rights Movement, a gay rights website, reported on Sherkat’s findings:

In his audit, Sherkat explains the role that parent company Reed Elsevier played in pushing greed to predominate over ethical science publishing in the Regnerus scandal.

The Regnerus publishing scandal actually is much broader than just the Regnerus and Marks papers. Three Regnerus study commentaries published alongside the Regnerus and Marks papers were done by three persons without same-sex-parenting science expertise, and with conflicts of interest in commenting on the study. Those three are 1) UT’s Dr. Cynthia Osborne, Regnerus’s co-researcher on the “study;” 2) Dr. Paul Amato, a paid Regnerus study consultant; and 3) David Eggebeen, a Witherspoon bigot crony who supports the continuation of sexual orientation apartheid.

Here is part of Sherkat’s explanation of how Reed Elsevier greed is driving the publication and promotions of the wide-scaled anti-gay Regnerus scandal:

“Controversy over sexuality sells and in only a week after publication these papers have already skyrocketed to the most downloaded papers published in Social Science Research.” (Bolding added). “But neither paper should have been published, in my opinion. Undoubtedly, any researcher doing work on same-sex parenting will now have to address the Regnerus paper, and these citations will inflate the all-important “impact factor” of the journal. It is easy to get caught up in the empirical measures of journal success, and I believe this overcame Wright in driving his decision to rush these into print. The fetishism of the journal impact factors comes from the top down, and all major publishers prod editors about the current state of their impact factor. Elsevier is particularly attentive to this and frequently inquires about what Wright is doing to improve the already admirable impact factor of Social Science Research. As social scientists, popularity should not be the end we seek, and rigorous independent evaluation of these manuscripts would have made Social Science Research a less popular but better journal.” (Bolding added).

In his CYA “audit,” Sherkat further wrote:

“once they were accepted there was an unseemly rush to publication.” He continues: “that was justified based on the attention that these studies would generate. The published responses were milquetoast critiques by scholars with ties to Regnerus and/or the Witherspoon Institute, and Elsevier assisted with the politicization by helping to publicize the study and by placing these papers in front of the pay wall.” (Bolding added).

So you have to wonder. Did Aaron Swartz die in vain? If this is the kind of junk behind the JSTOR paywall, maybe we are better off just dumping these journals. Or finding a way for scholars to share information without corporate pigs who organize arms shows and sell horsemeat getting into the act? Open Access journals have their problems as well, but at least they are not tainted by the almighty buck. Whatever solutions lie in store, let’s hope that Reed Elsevier is excluded since everything about them sucks.

February 14, 2014

Ted Rall on Michael Sam

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 10:02 pm

February 13, 2014

Good commentary on Michael Sam

Filed under: Gay,sports — louisproyect @ 8:29 am

March 19, 2013

108 Cuchillo de Palo; Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home

Filed under: Film,Gay,housing — louisproyect @ 6:40 pm

Two outstanding examples of leftwing documentary deserve the widest viewing. Opening yesterday at the Maysles theater in Harlem and playing through the 24th is “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, a study of the oppression of gay men in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay that I would rank at the very top the list of films committed to gay rights, right next to “Before Stonewall” or “The Celluloid Closet.” Just having finished a theatrical run on the West Coast, “Lost Angels: Skid Row is My Home” is now available as a DVD or streaming from Cinema Libre Studios, a production company that has a repertory of leftwing documentaries to its credit that is second to none.

Renate Costa Perdomo returned to her native Paraguay from Spain after learning of the death of her uncle Rodolfo Costa in order to understand what life was like for a gay man in one of Latin America’s most brutal dictatorships. The 108 of the title refers to a blacklist maintained by the state, while Cuchillo de Palo is Spanish for knife made of wood, a derogatory term directed at the “uselessness” of  gay men who will never impregnate women, God’s purpose for them as Renate’s deeply religious and deeply homophobic father reminds her every chance he gets.

The moments spent between Renate and her father Pedro Costa, the proprietor of a blacksmith shop inherited from his father, is a reminder that many men and women retain prejudices despite progress made by a powerful and insistent movement determined to win equality. Sitting across the kitchen table from him, she presses him on the disservice he did to his brother by treating him as a sinner. He unctuously replies that he is a sinner too and begins reciting biblical verses. She tells him that it is impossible to have a conversation with him. His response is to shrug his shoulders and smile placidly. One can understand why his wife divorced him long ago and why Renate fled to Spain. While her father was by no means a Stroessner supporter, it is not too hard to figure out why his 35-year reign was facilitated. The population was obviously trained to be passive and obedient by a calculating government and church.

Despite this being her first film, Ms. Perdomo is very adept at developing character and revealing psychological complexity. Despite her father’s obdurate opposition to the idea that gays have a right to live as they please, there is a softer and more likeable side to him that she brings out in comically unproductive kite-flying and fishing expeditions. You can’t help but feel that his homophobia is partially explained by his failure to have ever become an adult. An infantilized Paraguayan male population is made to order for an authoritarian system.

But the most uplifting and dramatically powerful parts of the film are Perdomo’s interviews with men who spent time in jail or prison as society’s sexual outlaws and lived not only to survive but to come out of the closet as well. She also interviews transvestites who knew her uncle well, women who had less to fear under Stroessner in some ways since they never had to worry about losing a job. When you make a living as a nightclub act in drag, there’s little chance that being on a blacklist would cause you to be fired.

Structured as a kind of detective story with Ms. Perdomo digging into her uncle’s past, including a survey of police records, we are drawn into the plot and the circumstances of her uncle’s death. One assessment from a family relative: he died of sadness. Thanks to the efforts of gay activists in Paraguay and everywhere else in the world, such casualties are becoming fewer and fewer.

If you’ve ever visited downtown Los Angeles, you’ve probably seen the Skid Row area that is home to the homeless. In humanizing its denizens, who are bedeviled by drugs and mental illness or both, “Lost Angels” deserves place of honor next to “Dark Days”, the 2000 documentary about homeless men and women living in the train tunnels beneath Grand Central.

Like “108: Cuchillo de Palo”, there was a woman whose creative vision was behind “Lost Angels”. Writer and co-producer Christine Triano was formerly the editor of Alternet, one of the Internet’s higher profile progressive websites.

Departing from the predominantly pro-Democratic Party slant of Alternet, Triano has no use for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who has been spearheading a drive to throw the homeless out of downtown L.A. as part of a gentrification effort that will transform Single Room Occupancy Hotels into lofts for hedge fund managers and web developers. Villaraigosa had hired New York’s former police commissioner William Bratton to “clean up” the city, especially its Skid Row. As Mayor Giuliani’s right-hand man, Bratton had the necessary experience to terrorize the poor through implementation of a “broken window” theory that states that when you crack down on petty crimes, you undermine serious crime as well.

Giuliani’s crackdown was examined in another fine documentary titled “Giuliani Time” about which I had to say:

[Rightwing think-tank analyst Myron] Magnet explains that Giuliani assumed power largely on the basis of the “broken window” theory pioneered by the ideologues at the Manhattan Institute. This posits the notion that petty crimes (or even offenses to bourgeois values) such as street-level drug dealing or panhandling have to be eradicated in order for larger law-and-order values to prevail. Unfortunately, many decent middle-class New Yorkers, who tended to vote Democrat, got suckered into voting for Giuliani because they were fed up with panhandlers, crack vials in their vestibule, etc.

It is clear that Los Angeles voters were suckered into backing Villaraigosa on the same basis, an outcome that was welcomed by The Nation Magazine’s Marc Cooper who crowed:

Villaraigosa’s campaign embodies not just the hopes for a rising Los Angeles progressive politics; it has taken on national significance as well. “LA has become a national bully pulpit in fighting for working families across the country. If we are successful in electing a mayor who can expand the middle class, then it will become a national watershed,” says Martin Ludlow, political director of the County Federation of Labor and Villaraigosa’s former legislative chief of staff.

As a cri de coeur, both of these films will certainly command the attention of anybody with a moral conviction that the oppression of society’s outsiders, whether the gay men of Paraguay or Los Angeles’s down and out, must come to an end. Although the left has a reputation of being weak and divided, the existence of such powerful works of art and advocacy are a reminder that our message will be heard. I especially recommend the website for “Lost Angels” that has links to groups fighting against the eviction of the homeless and other causes on their behalf.

“Lost Angels” is available on DVD from the Cinema Libre Store as well as Amazon and other web retailers.

It’s also available digitally via HULU and Amazon Instant very soon.

May 17, 2012

God hates no one

Filed under: Gay — louisproyect @ 1:32 pm

October 7, 2011

The Sons of Tennessee Williams; Elevate

Filed under: Africa,Film,Gay — louisproyect @ 5:51 pm

Although the adjective “inspirational” is one of the most hackneyed in the film reviewer’s vocabulary and hence one that I tend to shirk, I could think of no other word that better describes two new documentaries: “The Sons of Tennessee Williams”, opening today at the Quad in NY, and “Elevate” that opens at the AMC Empire in NY on October 21 and in other major theaters around the country thereafter. The first is about gay men in New Orleans who used Mardi Gras as an opportunity for what amounted to gay pride demonstrations long before Stonewall. The second is about Senegalese high school students who win basketball scholarships to prep schools in the United States. While sharing some of the same dark concerns as “Hoop Dreams” (basketball as a problematic ladder up from poverty) and “Lost Boys of Sudan” (African youth dealing with an alienating white bread American environment), it is instead an uplifting story of true grit and the finest movie I have ever seen about basketball.

Joining “Before Stonewall” and “The Celluloid Closet”, “The Sons of Tennessee Williams” illuminates the efforts of gay people to express themselves when the law and a backward society were against them even much more so than today. The film is structured around old home movies and still photos taken by the men themselves and their reflections on the past. Most are now in their 60s and beyond and obviously thrilled at the idea of telling anybody who will listen that they had nothing to be ashamed of. While Hollywood fiction films still tend to the “gay as tragic” motif, documentaries continue to make the case that gay men and women can live happy and fulfilled lives if the bigots would just leave them in peace.

“The Sons of Tennessee Williams” tells the story of “drag balls” in the early 60s that used the cover of Mardi Gras to allow gay men to express themselves. Even if cross-dressing was not necessarily their “thing”, these occasions were opportunities to implicitly “come out” since it was understood by everybody that they were coming at things from a different angle than the heterosexual men who cross-dressed during Mardi Gras in the same way they might have wore more conventional costumes. Of course, New Orleans being what it is, just about everybody enjoyed getting in rhinestone-studded outfits whether they were gowns or cowboy duds.

The cops generally allowed these “krewes” as they were called some leeway but it was understood that anybody caught in a dress after carnival was over would be arrested. The press notes for the documentary describe the origins of this early foray into gay liberation:

In February 1959, a group of gay men in New Orleans decided to have a Mardi Gras ball of their own. Mardi Gras organizations in New Orleans, called krewes, are social clubs comprised of members who celebrate the season together. Each krewe has their own festivities, including parties and parades, usually ending with a formal ball and the coronation of a King and Queen. Everyone seems to have a krewe of some kind to belong to. A full decade before Stonewall, a gay Carnival krewe was founded. They called it the Krewe of YUGA or “KY”. In 1962, “KY” rented a school cafeteria in the notoriously conservative suburb of Jefferson Parish. Securing such a venue for an all male krewe to hold a Mardi Gras ball would not likely raise suspicion. Most krewes were, in fact, made up of an anonymous all male membership. Various personnel from the venue were present at functions like these, however. This would no longer be a private event. “It was a kindergarten, is what it was.”

Familiar with police raids, the men knew that the 1962 ball would break a few laws. They made absolutely sure to be in full drag anyway. “It was a ball, after all, not bowling night.” The police roared in precisely at coronation time, alerted by private citizens of crossdressing men entering the building at night. Krewe members attempted to escape by running into the swamplands adjacent to the school, chased by officers with dogs and flashlights. Many were betrayed by their glittering costumes while hiding in the dark night and tall grasses of Jefferson Parish. They were taken to jail, identified by name in the newspaper and eventually prosecuted with the charge of “disturbing the peace.” The significance is this. The following year the ball was not raided nor was any subsequent ball in the history of these annual events. By 1969, there were four gay krewes legally chartered by the state of Louisiana as official Mardi Gras organizations, holding yearly extravaganzas at public venues across the city. “Society matrons begged for ball tickets from their hairdressers.” New Orleans was the first place in America where gay and straight people came together to publicly recognize gay culture.

Not only does the film celebrate gay culture, it is a celebration of what makes New Orleans a special place. The film has a perfect title since Tennessee Williams, despite his first name, was the city’s poet laureate. It begins with a quote from Blanche Dubois, from his greatest play “A Streetcar Named Desire”. (Streetcars in New Orleans actually had such names.) When asked by her brother-in-law Mitch whether she was being straight with him, Blanche answers: “Straight? What’s ‘straight’? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?” How true.

“Elevate” begins in Dakar, Senegal at the SEEDS Academy, where young basketball players from across West Africa come to get intensive athletic and academic training. We are introduced to Amadou, Assane, Byago, Dethie and Aziz as they go through the paces on the basketball court and the classroom.

We also see them at home where you can get an idea of domestic life and family relations in West Africa that is unlike anything I have seen in a documentary before. The warmth and solidarity that family members offer the young athletes is one of the film’s most engaging aspects. With so much emphasis in documentaries about war-torn countries like Sudan or Ivory Coast about cruelty and suffering, these scenes are a reminder that there is more to Africa than doom and gloom.

Once the athletes get off their planes and drive to their new schools in the United States, the contrast with Dakar could not be starker. One school has mandatory chapel services that Assane amiably takes part in despite his Muslim faith. After services are finished, he goes back to his room and prays toward Mecca. At the very minute another athlete Aziz is eying a hot dog in his school’s cafeteria during Ramadan, worrying if there is pork in it, the film cuts back to Dakar where it shows his mother preparing a traditional Senegalese dish in a huge kettle. The contrast drawn between America and Senegal throughout the film is not one intended to be judgmental, only to help one understand the psychological adjustment the young protagonists had to make.

And make them they did. The film benefits from having five of the most likable and engaging young people as you can possibly imagine. Wise beyond their years, they have few illusions about making it to the NBA. They see prep school not as a path toward a McMansion and a fleet of cars but rather one that can get them into an American college on a basketball scholarship and then a profession, like medicine or law.

Much of the film consists of locker-room banter, games on the court, sessions between the athletes and coaches or guidance counselors that are ostensibly mundane. But they take on a highly dramatic character since everything the five young heroes are involved with amounts to stepping stones toward a better life. This is a documentary that takes a seemingly routine business—the lives of Senegalese basketball scholarship students in America—and turns it into high drama. Highly recommended!

August 14, 2010

On the Road with Austin and Santino

Filed under: Gay,television — louisproyect @ 6:03 pm

Like Vanity Fair’s estimable James Wolcott, I am a fan of On the Road with Austin and Santino, a new Lifetime cable show about a couple of fashion designers who go around the country making couture type clothing for plain janes:

The pleasantest surprise of the television year so far is Lifetime’s underhyped and unheralded On the Road with Austin and Santino, teaming two of the most memorable, personality-plus designers from Project Runway, a creative odd couple that make for a terrific matched set. Outfitted in perfect little outfits, Austin Scarlett, diminutive and fey, looks as if he could be the guidance counselor from Glee’s long lost brother, the one who taught her everything she knows about pastels and jewelry selection; Santino Rice, tall, husky-voiced, and spaniel-eyed, has a more loping presence and loose, layered look. But both are quick-witted and droll, and make a helluva comedy duo as they tool around the country in this fashion-makeover road movie on the installment plan. (Santino at least resembles a road warrior behind the steering wheel–to many of the locals, Austin looks as if he landed from Venus.)

The last episode, which can be seen in its entirety here, was particularly entertaining as the two men end up in Antler, Oklahoma, the self-declared deer hunting capital of the country, to design a 30th birthday gown for Alesha, a  mother of two whose wardrobe is filled with hunting camouflage outfits rather than Chanel. There are many funny and charming aspects to their intervention, but especially the way the small town locals accept them on their own cosmopolitan and homosexual terms. Austin Scarlett, the more openly gay of the two, tells Alesha at one point that he has probably worn more skirts than she has over the past year or so.

It is not just the women who accept the two designers with open arms. Alesha’s husband and her father, who look like they could be cast as Klan members, are thrilled to see them working on Alesha’s gown. The other residents of the small town also give them the red carpet treatment. This is not what we would expect in an ostensibly homophobic small town, needless to say. Whether or not this generous and tolerant behavior was staged or not can of course not be determined, although I am inclined to believe that it was genuine. Admittedly, when you are being filmed you tend to be on your best behavior.

Whatever the case, it dawned on me how gratifying the show was when compared to the truly odious last movie by Sasha Baron Cohen that basically followed the same format as this TV show, but to the opposite effect. The gay fashionista Bruno played by Cohen went to the same kinds of small towns in order to catch locals in some kind of homophobic outrage. When Bruno goes out hunting with some men who look and dress like those in Antler, he tries to shock them into bad behavior by provoking them with outlandish sexual advances. To their credit, they largely remain unprovoked. The real lesson of Borat and Bruno, when you really get down to it, is how generally open-minded Americans are despite this British snob’s attempts to convey the opposite.

All this brings to mind Alexander Cockburn’s recent column about how fed up he is with gay marriage:

I’m for anything that upsets the applecart but why rejoice when state and church extend their grip, which is what marriage is all about. Assimilation is not liberation, and the invocation of “equality” as the great attainment of these gay marriages should be challenged.

To buttress his case, he followed up with a letter from a gay activist that stated:

As you might know, only 15 per cent of LGBT are in a relationship circumstance where they would marry.  Yet this issue has dominated LGBT activism for the past two decades. Along with gays in the military, which served 1.5 per cent of LGBT, these two conservative issues have crowded out progress on consensus economic issues, housing and job discrimination protections, which would appear to be in the interests of the vast majority, those of us who must compete for housing and employment.

That being said, the activist also told Cockburn that he’s “probably gonna tie the knot in the future when it becomes legal again.” He also thought that:

The issue of marriage is just a vehicle. The payload is the state ending discrimination in all of its practices. It is disgusting to me that marriage ended up getting us here, but I think that I can see daylight through Kennedy.

In other words, gay marriage might involve belief in a reactionary institution (I am married myself, for what that’s worth) but it is a means to a liberatory end.

To some extent, Cockburn’s complaint and that of some gay ultralefts is a kind of counter-cultural time machine journey back to 1971 or so when radicalism and life style were inextricably linked, especially in New Left circles. For gays, this translated into rejection of all aspects of bourgeois society, especially its sexual mores. What a disappointment it must be to them to see so many gays jumping on the bandwagon of an institution that symbolizes bourgeois society. Like pressing for the rights of gays to join the military or become Protestant ministers, this would appear to be a wholesale rejection of “militancy”.

Perhaps the same thing could be said about the civil rights movement of the 1950s that focused so much on African-Americans not being discriminated against. By the 60s the Black movement had reversed course and worried less about discrimination and more about the possibility of becoming separated from a decadent bourgeois white society.

History played a trick when it came to gays. Rather than moving from anti-discrimination to militancy (except for the rather modest efforts of the Mattachine Society), it went from the militancy of the early 70s to something much more like an “integrationist” movement today. It is too bad that some on the left cannot accept the movement on its own terms.

Oddly enough, Counterpunch has published far more articles in defense of gay marriage than Cockburn’s contrarian pieces, a sign of the publication’s health, I would say. If only the “vanguard” press could live up to this example, we’d all be better off. Here’s one item to consider:

On a swing through Baton Rouge, Louisiana last week, John F. Kerry made it crystal clear that he doesn’t care much for gay marriage. The intolerant senator scoffed at reporters when asked whether or not he supported the inclusion of a same-sex marriage plank in the Massachusetts Democratic platform. Kerry answered by saying that such a statement does not represent the views held by most party members, including himself.

“I’m opposed to it being in a platform. I think it’s a mistake,” Kerry huffed, “I think it’s the wrong thing, and I’m not sure it reflects the broad view of the Democratic Party in our state … I’m opposed to gay marriage.”

The senator, who flip-flopped his way through a self-defeating campaign in 2004, can’t get his act together — yet he is still setting himself up for another run in 2008. Supporting gay marriage amounts to electoral death, or so claims Kerry. He must think inflating his political status is more important than standing up for equality.

Indeed Kerry’s statement is the kind of veiled hate speech we were hearing from racist Democrats down South during the civil rights struggles. Fortunately, Dems in Massachusetts aren’t buying Kerry’s line, as they are planning to vote in favor of putting a same-sex marriage plank in their platform later this month. In fact, Kerry is behind the times, as his state’s Supreme Court legalized gay marriage back in May of 2004.

This, of course, is entirely the right tack to take. Hearkening back to Lenin’s “What is to be Done”, it puts the premium on standing up for the rights of a persecuted minority without trying to gainsay the goal being pursued. In illustrating how a “vanguard” functions, Lenin referred to the German social democracy:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of the Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy is always found to be in advance of all the others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny…It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressive as city mayor (our Economists have not managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against ‘obscene’ publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc.

If Lenin advocated that socialists fight for the right of a “bourgeois progressive” to take office in Germany, why is so difficult for some on the left to see gay marriage in the same terms?

Logo, a polling company subsidiary of MTV, asked young gays about their hopes. It found the following:

For one thing, younger gays now expect to stay put: no more running away to be gay. Rather than heading to big cities where gays are more readily accepted, young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America.

That means younger gays fully anticipate, and demand, acceptance from their local communities. At the same time, younger gays don’t see a great need to depart from most cultural norms as expressed by their heterosexual peers; while wishing to be open and honest about their core identities, young gays also wish for the support and purpose of family.

The expectation of a spouse and children is common among younger gays, whereas the research indicated that only about a third of gays 35 and older shared that same desire. Overall, gays polled by the study said their top priority was marriage equality, followed by the environment, health care, and the economy.

Get that? Young gays are planning to put down roots and raise families in small-town America. They also said their top priority was marriage equality.

All in all, On the Road with Austin and Santino is an expression of these hopes and dreams. Gay youth want to be accepted on their own terms, even in such a place as Antler, Oklahoma. The desire to express one’s sexual identity without negative consequences is entirely normal. The United States is headed inexorably toward significant demographic changes that will help to undermine the reactionary prejudices of many white males living both in places like Antler and in New York City where gay-bashing still takes place. Socialists have an obligation to strengthen every initiative that moves us away from the prejudices that have taken the lives of Blacks, Latinos and gays. Part of this is fighting for gay marriage, a change that would make gay people and straights equal in the eyes of society, whether or not one or another reactionary has endorsed this demand. As is always the case, socialists should not put a minus where the ruling class—or elements of it—put a plus. As Leon Trotsky once said, we have to learn to think.

December 7, 2009

Among the Freudians

Filed under: Gay,psychology — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

Dr. Samuel Kahn: ardent Freudian

This year I worked with a couple of people on a comic book memoir about my comic life that should be out in 2011, god willing.

That exercise has triggered a Proustian examination of key episodes facilitated more by Google than a Madeline dunked into a cup of tea. Pretty much all of my strange encounters will be covered in the memoir but one slipped my mind entirely. When I was 14, my parents shipped me off to summer camp for neurotic children. Yes, I know that sounds funny but that’s what it was. Just like there are summer camps for fat kids, Jewish kids, rightwing Christian fundamentalist kids, there are summer camps for neurotics. At least there was in 1959.

Around the time I turned 14, my mother became worried that I never smiled. I suppose if she asked me why, I could have told her that I was tired of being bullied by bigger kids in school and by the mindless materialism and conformity that I was growing disenchanted with. I still didn’t have a handle on my malaise, but reading Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg a year later would help me figure it out. And then a year later, when I turned 16, I went off to Bard College where I became acquainted with 400 other neurotic youth newly liberated by the school that Walter Winchell had called “the little red whorehouse on the Hudson”.

My loquacious mother was asking around about what to do with me, especially during the summer when vacationing Jews from New York flooded into our village, bringing their big-city sophistication up with them. We were rubes by comparison. One of these Jews was Kenny Gottlieb, an Amherst undergraduate who was working summers at the Olympic Hotel. Like thousands of other young men depicted in movies like “Dirty Dancing”, the summer earnings as camp counselors, waiters and busboys helped pay tuition and expenses at places like Amherst and Columbia. Kenny’s uncle was Sam Weiser, the owner of a famous occult bookstore in New York that has since moved to Maine. After I became a fledgling beatnik, I used to make pilgrimages to the bookstore to browse titles in Gnosticism, Kabbalah and other “hipster” religions.

Kenny was introduced to my mom by the people who ran the hotel, who were locals like us. Sizing up my situation, he recommended that I be shipped off to Camp Quakerbridge in Croton-on-Hudson that was run by a psychiatrist named Samuel Kahn whose sister owned the Olympic. So in the summer of 1959, I went to summer camp for the first time in my life. Instead of playing pinball machines, fishing for pickerel in nearby ponds or shooting off firecrackers with my hooligan pals, I was going off to be “cured”.

Most of the kids there were Jews like me and seemed to be suffering from the kind of emotional burdens associated with middle-class life as documented in the novels of Philip Roth. Whether they could be described as “neurosis” or not is open to debate but that did not seem to deter the counselors and social worker/therapists who were steeped in Freudian theory and camp director Samuel Kahn’s particular interpretations of the man he studied with.

A typical day might consist of playing softball from 9:30 to 11 followed by a session with “Mrs. Rabinowitz” (I can’t remember any of their names except Kahn’s) who explained to us kids what was wrong not only with us, but most of the human race. Using a blackboard, she went through terms like “ego”, “superego” and “id” to bring us up to speed. When she came to the Oedipal Complex, most of us had trouble wrapping our minds around that. The idea of having erotic feelings toward one’s mother seemed most improbable, especially when you had a look at some of them who came up to visit on weekends.

I didn’t take the lectures that seriously but was happy to get away from my father’s fruit store for the summer. I was expected to put in a few hours a day waiting on customers who asked in thick Yiddish accents “you got some nice tomatoes maybe?”

In early July, having spent about a month there, I wandered over to the main building where I spotted a group of the counselors and other staff members sitting around in a circle while the camp’s drama director walked up and down in the middle. For a few moments, he was talking about things that were troubling him that would not be of much interest to a 14 year old—like a sense of inadequacy, etc. You have to become an adult for such things to get you down, especially in bourgeois society. But what happened next was totally unexpected. The counselor began to sob uncontrollably about his problems, the tears falling down his face. I had never seen a grown man cry, an act that was particularly rare in the self-controlled masculine world of the 1950s.

A few days later, I received an even greater shock. Dr. Samuel Kahn wanted to meet with me, about what I had no idea. We sat on a bench near the main building and he presented a proposal to me. He thought that I would benefit from living with a couple in Croton-on-Hudson who would be able to “rescue” me from the misery my parents were inflicting on me. Although I was happy to be away from them for a summer, the idea of going to live with people who cried in public and whose lives revolved around discussing the superego was not my cup of tea. I called my mom that evening and demanded to be brought home. Since my father’s fruit store was doing a booming business that summer (the Catskills would collapse only 6 or 7 years later), they didn’t think twice about bringing me home to wait on customers.

Just out of curiosity, I did some investigation on “Samuel Kahn” and “Quakerbridge” on the Internet. This is what I came up with. The NY Times reported on December 28, 1981:

Dr. Samuel Kahn, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had studied with Freud, died Thursday at Westchester County Medical Center in White Plains. Dr. Kahn, who was a resident of Croton-on-Hudson, was 84 years old.

He was born in Atlanta and was a graduate of Emory University where he also received his medical degree. Dr. Kahn interned in various New York City hospitals and studied in Vienna.

He was a clinical psychiatrist at Mount Sinai Hospital and served as an associate professor at Long Island University. He was the founder and a director of the Quakerbridge School, a youth camp in Ossining, N. Y.

Dr. Kahn was the author of more than 30 books of psychotherapy, of which the most recent was ”Practical Child Guidance and Mental Hygiene.” Among others were ”How and Why We Laugh,” ”Anxieties, Phobias and Fears,”, ”Master Your Mind!” and ”Thanks for a Better Memory.”

He is survived by his wife, Karen; two daughters, Dr. Janice Kahn of Island Park, L. I., and Susannah of Ossining, N. Y.; three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Of even greater interest was a website called http://quakerbridgecamp.com/ that has a bunch of the good Doctor’s musings. The first one that caught my eye was called “Acting Out” – Homosexuality and Bisexuality, a talk he gave exactly 52 years ago to this day. He explains:

A passive homosexual is one who can be made into an active homosexual by special circumstances. Under ordinary circumstances he prefers heterosexuality, but supposing he would get drunk and be locked up in a room with a homosexual, he would have homosexual relations. When the drinks wear off, he again prefers heterosexuality. The largest numbers of homosexuals are the passive unconscious homosexuals. These don’t know that they are homosexuals and they are the ones who get mentally sick. The way to find out whether one is a passive unconscious homosexual is to interpret the dreams. Many times these dreams are symbolic so that the individual himself cannot interpret the dreams and hence, may not recognize his homosexuality or the kind it is. Once in awhile a passive unconscious homosexual may have an overt homosexual dream. This may happen, but it is not so common. These dreams may or may not be remembered. The exact situation may happen to females.

The first time I got an inkling how stupid this was from the comedians Jack Burns and Avery Shreiber who did a skit called “The Conventioneer and the Cabdriver” around this time on television. Burns played the conventioneer as a thick-necked Rotarian from someplace like East Jesus, Nebraska who was in NY for a convention. Shreiber, the cabby, was taking him to his hotel and answering his anxious questions about the visit. Somehow, the conversation turned to ballet dancers that the Rotarian heard thrived in New York. He told the cabby that if any of them ever got smart with him, he’d punch them out. Everybody understood how stupid he sounded, even if the reference to gays was only veiled. 10 years later, with the Stonewall rebellion, most intelligent people in the U.S. would have nothing to do with the prejudices of the conventioneer played by Burns or by Dr. Samuel. As backward as American society can seem sometimes, I have to remind myself from time to time that we are making progress.

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