Pride Parade, 2011

I don’t focus much on poetry these days, but I did have a few pieces published in Vice Magazine back in the mid-90’s. That wasn’t the Vice Magazine of today, but a NYC free gay bar rag that tried to aspire to something more cultural than Next or HX by featuring poetry and art photography.

Tasteful nudes, of course.

There was even a centerfold.

I still have some of them stored somewhere.

But I digress: they published a few of my poems. One day I’ll post them.

This piece was originally written for a class at The Writer’s Studio in the Fall of 2011. I was frustrated with the assignment and with what I had come up with. I thought it was crap and made some disparaging remarks about it before choosing a classmate to read it aloud. And as the words hit the air, I started to realize that it was really moving. And important. And it was really effecting the others in the room. People got a little verklempt. And there was silence when it was over. And then a classmate spoke up and said, “I hate you. If that’s what you come up with when you’re not feeling the assignment. I really hate you.”

The lesson I learned: just as you should never apologize before an audition (regardless of any ailments or trauma in your life), do not discredit your own work before presenting it.

So here it is, posted without further comment…

(I did not take these pics, btw)

Gay Pride

Pride Parade, 2011

The parade of pride and fabulousity follows the purple stripe downtown –

guiding the way to gay ground zero: Christopher Street,

where it reaches its zenith, then dissipates into the side streets and alleys.

 

The air is electric – more than any celebration in recent memory.

The mood victorious as the decision was passed down late last night:

We can get married in New York today.

thank you cuomo

Mylar streamers and cardboard cutouts adorn the floats – trailers and pickup trucks

glittered up like drag queens for a day – back to work tomorrow, like the rest of us.

An explosion of g-strings and dykes on bikes and topless transgenders

and she was a he and that one I’m not sure – all making their way down 5th Avenue

to the anthemic disco beat of  I Was Born This Way.

 

On toes, I am balanced on a square inch of stoop at Barrow Street –

holding on to the railing, vying for a better view.

Next to me babies in rainbow bibs and bandanas

clap and giggle in the arms of their two mommies.

pride police

Police line the barricades with bemused smiles of “tolerance” –

steps away from Stonewall, and the confrontation that started it all-

their opinions now suppressed and stored for a private audience at a later time.

 

A weary drag queen sits on the curb, shoes in hand, wilting in the summer heat.

From windows and rooftops, cheering crowds toast

with their brunch Bellinis and Bloody Marys.

On a 5th floor perch at the corner of Bleecker, a man with confetti blesses the crowd below.

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We walk this parade route, sharing sidewalks with ghosts, both living and dead:

There are no monuments to that lost generation of artists.

The survivors, no longer emaciated – saved by their cocktails.

These muscled torsos on spindly legs walk with the gait of wounded birds.

Their weary eyes and sunken cheeks tell the history more freely than their mouths.

 

We forget what it was like to be so scared.

 

Making our way down Christopher, herded like cattle to the street fair on Hudson.

Promotional tents for film and TV; samples of snacks and fruity drinks –

with acceptance comes the term “marketable demographic” as the former pariahs have

deep pockets and money to burn.

streetfair

Booths for dating services, pet care and enterprising wedding planners – a first!

A Wheel of Fortune carnival game: step right up and win some porn!

Stickers and posters advertise the Real Housewives of No Place Real.

Underwear-clad go-go boys flirt as they pass out condoms and lube.

 

Young lovers embrace – that overwhelming first love. Out in the open for all to see.

Too young to have known the fear, the loss, the magnitude of the shame.

Celebrating side by side with those old enough to remember

when the bullied and beaten didn’t ask why, and didn’t tell.

They took what was given – they were told they deserved it.

With words and in silence in one hundred different ways.

after

 

Now we know better.

And the world is not perfect on this day,

but we are closer now than we have ever been before.

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That’s So Gay.

Meditation On A Theme kicked off Gay Pride Month at The Center on June 2, 2017. The theme was That’s So Gay. Here’s what I had to say:

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It snuck up on me recently when I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know how this happened…. but the calendar says that I came out 30 years ago. Is this a milestone that people keep track of and celebrate? What is the anniversary stone or fiber that should be gifted in celebration of declaring yourself a homo for 30 years? Tobacco? Taffeta?

1986 thtr artsI can’t pinpoint the exact date when this occurred – I got the boyfriend and then started to come out to friends and family. It was the spring of 1987. I was 18 and a senior in high school, which was uncommonly young for people of my generation and average-to-late for younger people. A friend of mine from college now has a 10-year-old trans child. When I came out, I felt like a trailblazer. Now I feel like I wasted a few years. On the other hand, my partner Chris was a late bloomer and I don’t want to make him feel bad, so I’ll just say we all move at our own pace.

When we riseWe watched the ABC miniseries When We Rise that aired in February. It didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare – people on Facebook either loved or hated it. But for Christ sake, we’re talking about a prime time 4-night miniseries on broadcast network television about the history of the gay rights movement. That’s something, right? It also helped me to dust off some cobwebs and have a look back at when I first came out. Chris is quite curious to learn about our history over the past 50 years and while he sometimes beats himself up about what he doesn’t know, I remind him that he’s a lot more knowledgeable than a lot of younger people. And when I say this, I picture some generic air-headed twink who doesn’t realize that gay history goes back further than season 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race.  

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This applies not just to the history of gay activism, but to gay icons and the history of camp as well. Thank god for Ryan Murphy and his FX show Feud – the younger generation has now discovered Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. I’m afraid for the moment that Garbo and Dietrich are shit out of luck.

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Together Chris and I have watched many of the documentaries that were integral to my coming out process and understanding of gay history. We watched the 1984 documentary Before Stonewall. I sat with my computer nearby and as each interview subject appeared onscreen (and that includes Ms. Audre Lorde herself) I would Google their names to see if they were still alive. Only one or two are left. And some of them lived to ages in their nineties, but the documentary is now 33 years old. Again, it’s just that passage of time that has gotten away from me.

I know this is going to sound ridiculous but … I forget that everyone continues getting older, even when I am not paying attention. It’s like the first time I was at a beach house in the wintertime. And I went for a walk on the beach in the snow at 4 am and I thought “My GOD! The waves are crashing on the shore all the time!” It’s one of those moments that I smack myself in the head and go … “Well, of course they do, you idiot. Of course they do.” And so… my Captain Obvious Statement of Stupidity is… time just keeps marching on. And before you know it, a generation is gone and you are moving one seat down to make room for the younger ones.

Word-is-out-1977We watched the 1977 documentary The Word Is Out. It holds up well  – this was a groundbreaking documentary for its time. There’s a remastered DVD version that I highly recommend, with updates on the cast, which had a lower mortality rate than Before Stonewall, which came years later.

HMilkPosterI noticed something interesting while revisiting these documentaries, as well as The Times of Harvey Milk. I hadn’t watched these in many many years. Certain people would appear onscreen and I would remember how I felt about them but I couldn’t remember exactly why.  I’d say “Oooh I love her! Ugh I hate him.” …without remembering what it was that they were about to say or do. I started to realize that some people who rubbed me the wrong way as a 20-year-old viewer seem perfectly fine to me now that I am 48.

wordisout01Some of it is due to a changing view on life or love or recognizing the defensive stance that previous generations might take when openly discussing their sexuality. But I also realized this: I had a low tolerance for effeminacy when I was just coming out. Yes, I was fine with being gay but I wanted to be the one to TELL you that I was gay. I didn’t want you to be able to guess. And someone who was flamboyant was not my cup of tea. I was also an actor and effeminacy was the last thing you wanted anyone to detect. AND this was during the AIDS crisis, of course, and I think that, in my not completely enlightened brain, this inability or unwillingness to hide also broadcast that you HAD it. I know how ridiculous that sounds. I would like to sit down with my younger self and talk about it.

When did this change? I assume it was gradual. But there was one moment that sprung to mind. And I had written about it in an essay called The Bus Stop back in 2005. Bush Jr. was inexplicably elected for a second term and I was feeling pretty disgusted with the conservative portion of the country that would vote for that simpleton. And then we took two steps forward, and one giant step back… and here we are… and now George W doesn’t seem like the worst choice in the world, does he?

The Bus Stop was supposed to be my first published work. It was accepted into a gay anthology that collapsed before the book made it to publication. One thing I must say before I read this: I apologize in advance for anything perceived as racially insensitive. But this is where I was at the time:

3rd ave uptownI was on my way to work one morning, waiting for the uptown bus on Third Avenue at 9th street. It was a frigid 8 degrees that day – I was all bundled up in a hat, scarf, gloves, and bomber jacket. Nothing flamboyant. Nothing extraordinary.

I turned around and saw this 250lb black kid come out of the deli followed by his three skinny little girlfriends. They were young – probably around 13 or so. The linebacker would have passed for much older but the loud immature behavior was a dead giveaway.

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He flings the door open yelling “We in the Village. The Village is gay. Let’s get out of here. Gay people live here.”

Now…  to be honest, this kid seemed pretty light in his linebacker loafers. Granted, he was young, but given his size, puberty had paid a big visit. Yet, the voice was pretty high, and the inflection had those telltale signs. And here he was, hangin’ with the girls down in the Village. It was so blatantly obnoxious that I thought perhaps he already did know that he was gay and that this was some sort of a joke that he was making with his friends.

M103 busI had only glanced over as they came out the door. I’m a New Yorker. Direct eye contact can be considered an overt act of aggression. You get used to it. So I heard these comments over my shoulder as I peered down the street, praying for the bus to come.

The behemoth continued. “This place is where gay people live. I want to get out of here. Look at him. He’s GAY.”

In an instant, I was 13 years old again on a junior high school playground. I could feel their eyes burning into the back of me. He had to be talking about me. We were alone on this stretch of street. There was nobody else he could be referring to.

The teen flashback only lasted a moment. Because I am not 13 anymore. I am in my thirties, and I am angry. My next impulse was to turn around and say… “Are you black? Do I need to point out that you are black? Yes, I’m gay. What ARE you gonna do about it?”

This didn’t seem like a smart thing to say to a brutish man-child who did not yet know his newly acquired strength. Besides, in front of his friends, he’d really have to prove himself, and he’d snap me like a twig. Or clock me over the head with his box of scam-candy.

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The impulse to confront passed. I heard my mother say “Stay above it. Don’t stoop to his level.” So I did what I would have done when I was 13 years old. I ignored it. I stood there.

I started wondering what could have tipped him off. As I said, eye contact was minimal.  I wasn’t even paying attention at that point. Age, gender – it didn’t matter. I started to examine my clothes. No bright colors or patterns. Too neat? I hadn’t said anything, so I can’t blame the voice. This time. I wasn’t dancing pirouettes singing show tunes. Was it my earring? The little tuft of gelled hair sticking out from under my hat? (I had more hair then. And hair products.)

Then I stopped myself. Did it matter? Why was I dissecting myself over this? So what if he could or couldn’t tell! Why SHOULD I have to cover my tracks? Why couldn’t I be a big ole fag, in 2005, waiting for a bus in Greenwich fucking Village and NOT have to worry about some dickhead whupping my ass because he couldn’t deal with his own burgeoning sexuality?

The kids were now beating the crap out of each other, smacking their drinks out of each other’s hands as they waited for the same bus that I had been praying would show up already.

bus2

Finally, it arrived. This crew pushed their way onto the bus first. I thought about waiting for the next one. But no – let them get on first and then I could make sure I sat as far from away as possible.

Surprise, surprise. Something’s wrong with gay linebacker’s bus pass. He starts arguing with the driver, and they’re all kicked off before they can even get on. As I board the bus, the driver is yelling “I’d have let you go ahead if you hadn’t mouthed off at me.”

As the bus door closed, I turned to the crew, smiled sweetly and waved my gayest little Marlo Thomas wave. That Girl really pissed them off.

that girl

The bus began to pull away, and they ran alongside screaming and giving me the finger. I returned the gesture with one hand while blowing little kisses with the other, hoping that the boy would think of this moment for a long time to come. I wanted him to remember my face, and the faces of every gay person that he had ever caused any trouble. I hoped they kept him awake at night as he tried to understand why he wanted the guy who sat next to him in English class to fuck him and why his family raised him to behave this way and why they hated what he secretly was.Alan Helms

I sat down and continued reading a book I’d started earlier in the week: Alan Helms’ memoir Young Man From The Provinces: A Gay Life Before Stonewall.

We don’t have to put up with this shit anymore.

So – that was written 12 years ago. And magically, we no longer had to put up with that shit anymore, right? Yay! Two steps forward, and hopefully now only one step back.

I just had another one of those time passage / epiphany moments, as I realized that the kids in this story are now twice as old. It was half a lifetime ago for them. They are in their 20’s now. Maybe the girls have kids. Maybe that boy was ON RuPaul’s Drag Race. Who knows? The thing is – I’m not mad anymore. I hope he sorted himself out. I hope his family doesn’t hate him. I hope he has a good support system. And I hope by now that he would want to sit down with his younger self and talk about it.

If You See Something, Say Something

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I’m so happy that Meditation On A Theme is back! And at the LGBT Center, where I first attended one it back in… 2009, I think? And I remember I sat there and thought…. “I wanna do that.” I took part in 13 of them before the hiatus two years ago. The last one I did was in June, 2013 – You Can’t Do That On Television. I was just a few weeks into dating my partner Chris and it was the first time he got to see me get up and actually DO something. And my parents always attended, so they were there and it was the first time they got to meet him, so… really there was no pressure at all. But it turned out OK and we all lived happily ever after.

Chris lived in Kew Gardens at the time. This was my first mixed relationship, and by that I mean the first time I was dating someone who lived outside of Manhattan. I did that selfish “you come to me – I live in the cooler place” thing for as long as I could, but eventually I had to reciprocate and venture out there.

kg-austin-today-2Our first stop was coffee from Odradeks next to the Kew Gardens Long Island Railroad Station. This is at the end of a row of two story Tudor-style buildings on Austin Street between the train station parking lot and Lefferts Boulevard. There’s retail at street level on both the Austin Street side and on the rear of the buildings, with apartments on the second floor. The back faces the train tracks, where there is a foot path and steps up to Lefferts. The most prominent business here is Austin’s Ale House, which has created an outdoor dining area on the track side of the path. This is where we had dinner later that night.

Since my high school days, I had noticed both Kew Gardens and also the next stop Forest Hills from the window of the Long Island Railroad as I’d traveled into Manhattan, so it was interesting now to be the one sitting on the shore as the trains came and went.

If you look at the map, Queens and Brooklyn are physically ON Long Island and I was a total Manhattan snob and felt that if I was going to live in either borough I was basically a failure and practically moving back home. But after a couple of decades of that sort of thinking, here I was starting to enjoy spending time out here… with Chris, in the country with trees and flowers and stuff. One night we saw a raccoon walking on the top of a chain link fence a few feet from the sidewalk and I’m like… I was on a subway 5 minutes ago…where the fuck am I?

So I was moving forward in a new relationship and letting go of the idea that Manhattan was the be all and end all and considering the benefits of living in Queens with more space and quicker access to family on Long Island because nobody’s getting any younger out there and I’d still be back in Manhattan every weekday for work anyway, and I’m not even going to get into the whole “falling out of love with the East Village that is a shell of its former self and unaffordable and blah blah blah…” Countless essays have been written about that.

But things were shifting… slowly.. and we continued to divide time between both places as the relationship progressed.

In March of the following year, I was watching the news and they had a segment on the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese. This was the boogie man story of all time to scare people out of moving to the big bad apathetic city. I had heard about this when I was growing up. In 1964, this pretty young woman was murdered and all her neighbors watched and nobody intervened.

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I later learned that the reportage of this case produced one of the most famous articles in New York Times history. The headline screamed: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police with the lede paragraph: “For more than half an hour, 37 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks… Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.” I pictured these blank people eating popcorn watching this attack from their tenement windows.

The piece ran at a time that perfectly played into the fears of the day: anxiety about the anonymity of urban life and also the fear of random violence in post-JFK America. This was only 4 months after his assassination. A 2014 New Yorker magazine piece revisiting the slaying said “The New York Times story fed into a version of reality that was molded to conform to a theory…”  basically that life is cheap in the naked city, baby. You’re just one in a million and those cold heartless bastards wouldn’t cross the street to save your life.

The outrage over this story was never about the killer or the actual killing. The attacker had already been captured by the time the Times article ran two weeks after the murder. This was about The 37 – later amended to 38 – The 38 apathetic people who saw something and said nothing. This was also about selling newspapers by scaring the crap out of everyone.

Books were written about the case. Songs. More than one Law & Order episode ripped it from the headlines. The HBO show Girls just did a whole episode that referenced it. There were psychological and sociological studies about what is now known as “The Genovese Syndrome” – when bystanders fail to intervene when a crime is taking place. This all snowballed from the New York Times article. And because of the prestige of the New York Times, nobody really investigated to see if the story was accurately reported. And unfortunately, it wasn’t. People in the neighborhood where it took place knew it. If this happened today, they could have taken to social media to correct the story. But it took 40 years before anyone in print media started to try get it right.

But before I get into that… Where do you think this symbol of urban indifference took place? In the version of the story I envisioned with the people in the windows with the popcorn, it was smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen! Because that was the worst of the worst and of course it happened there. But no. I’m watching the news report on the 50th anniversary of this horrible event and they are live on the scene… in Kew Gardens. Kitty lived in an apartment above the back of what is now Austin’s Ale House. That foot path along the back that I mentioned? Some older neighborhood residents call it Kitty Genovese Way.

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Here’s another interesting tidbit that went unreported for 40 years: Kitty was a lesbian, living with her girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko. She was killed on the one-year anniversary of the day they had agreed to move in together. While this “unfortunate gay condition” was still regarded as a mental illness at the time, this was not the angle that the New York Times was going for, so the women were referred to as “roommates.” In recent years Mary Ann has started to give interviews and open up about the guilt she has felt her entire life, having slept through the whole incident.

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So here’s what happened: Kitty was a manager at a bar in Jamaica. She was driving home around 3am when Winston Mosely spotted her. He was driving around looking for, in his words, “a woman to kill.” She parked her car in the LIRR parking lot and must have realized she was being followed because she didn’t go around back to the footpath to her apartment – she started to run up Austin Street toward Lefferts Boulevard, possibly headed to the front of the bar that is now Austin’s Ale House, but that bar had already closed. She was screaming for help when he caught up to her and stabbed her. Some people in the apartment building across the street later said they thought they heard a drunken altercation or a lover’s quarrel outside the bar. One man opened his window and yelled “Leave that girl alone” – this was enough to scare off Mosely. Kitty, who was already mortally wounded, slowly made her way back down and around to the back of the building, headed towards her apartment. She managed to get into the vestibule of her neighbor’s building when Mosely found her, raped and stabbed her again.

So there were two attacks in two different places. Nobody could have seen or heard both. Someone did call an ambulance, and Kitty was cradled by a neighbor – a 70 year old woman who held her until the ambulance arrived. But none of this fit the grand narrative of urban indifference.

On the other hand, the neighbor whose building she managed to reach, a guy who was actually was a friend of hers (but may have been drunk) opened his door, saw something going on with Kitty and some guy in the vestibule, freaked out, closed his door, called a friend, went out the window to another friend’s apartment and eventually called the police. It’s not as if he blithely said “I don’t wanna get involved” and went back to bed, as it was reported.

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In an interview for a new documentary about the case called The Witness, which is about Kitty’s younger brother Bill investigating what really happened, the author of the original New York Times piece basically admitted that he made up the number of witnesses. But he felt that his version of the story had done a lot of good and brought to light things that needed to be said.

Some sources have said that the outrage over the incident led to the creation of the 911 emergency call system. In 1964, a person had to look up the number of their local precinct in the phone book. But really, the 911 system wasn’t put into place until 1968. And in this particular case, it turns out that people did call the police. One person who called said that they were told by the precinct that “police were already aware of the situation.” But the police didn’t come. Why? It has been speculated that, because the initial attack was perceived to be a domestic dispute, it was ignored. People don’t like to get involved in how a man disciplines his woman. That’s nobody’s business.

But…. what if the focus of the New York Times article had been on the reluctance to get involved in what some thought was a domestic dispute? If some didn’t call the police because of this… and the police didn’t send someone out because of this… couldn’t that have been the shocking focus of the piece? Maybe that caveman thinking could have been dealt with sooner rather than later?

The author of a 2004 revisit in the New York Times said “If the story had been reported more accurately, it would have been a two- or three-day, maybe even a four-day story, but it would not have been a fifty-year story. We would not still be sitting here talking about it today.” As sure as Mama Cass did not choke on a ham sandwich, 38 people did not stand by and let this woman get murdered. But you can’t fix an urban myth.

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The Genovese syndrome might exist but it didn’t in this case. Or at least not in the numbers reported. But there were a couple of people that did not help her. That’s no urban legend.

Yes, there are horrible people in this world. There are enough mass shootings to confirm that. But with every tragedy there are stories about the acts of heroism of everyday people. I’m not going to end with some Anne Frank bon mots like “In spite of everything I believe all people are good at heart.” I’m sorry but some people in this world just absolutely suck. But you have to hope that there aren’t too many, or that they aren’t concentrated together.

 

Later in 2014, Chris and I moved in together in Forest Hills – the next stop closer to Manhattan, in a Tudor-style apartment building right alongside the railroad tracks. I later discovered that two different Son of Sam murders took place down the block back in 1977. But that’s another story…. Shortly after we moved in, signs went up around the neighborhood for the filming of “37” – a dramatization of the Kitty Genovese 943922_822735887872384_4077857973647481543_nstory, with Forest Hills standing in for Kew Gardens. I immediately thought the worst – the title didn’t give much hope that they were actually going to set the record straight. And this was what I thought, literally up until yesterday, when I read a Facebook post from one of the actors in the film, and what followed was a dialogue in which he assured me that the movie does address the inaccuracies and how the story affected society.

And this made me think back to the 2014 New Yorker magazine article, which concluded that “The real Kitty Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties.” See, I just kind of did the same thing with this film that I haven’t even seen.

Picture a link to the original Kitty Genovese New York Times story scrolling by on your newsfeed. And let’s just assume you already think that New York City is dangerous and the world is a shitty, horrible place. And you read that article and express your outrage and shake your head and shake your fist and wing off a visceral response and click “share.” And it was one source. One embellished source.

So I guess what I’m saying is … If you see something… check around a little. Google. Check Snopes. Think for a minute. Then say something.