Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Gay Icons: Part 2

Larry Kramer

‘I love being gay. I love gay people. I think we’re better than other people. I really do. I think we’re smarter and more talented and more aware and I do, I do, I totally do. And I think we’re more tuned in to what’s happening, tuned into the moment, tuned into our emotions, and other people’s emotions, and we’re better friends. I really do think all these things.’

Larry Kramer wrote the screenplay for Ken Russell’s Women In Love but what brought him more lasting prominence, or at least notoriety, was the novel Faggots which in 1978 documented the last great years of sexual freedom for gay men in New York before AIDS cut through the city like an invisible tidal wave. Faggots was no celebration of debauchery, rather it was a plea for understanding from a community that needed love but got only betrayal, sex, opiates and self-loathing. Lots of gay men hated the book. The scene depicting the fire in the bathhouse (based on an actual blaze that killed nine men) seems something like a hell of our own making. The party was soon over.

‘Kramer became involved in gay activism when friends he knew from Fire Island began getting sick in 1980. In 1981, Kramer invited the "A-list" group of gay men from the New York City area to his apartment to listen to a doctor say their friends' illnesses were related, and research needed to be done. The next year, they named themselves the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), and became the primary organization to raise funds for and provide services to people stricken with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the New York area.’ (Wikipedia)

GMHC is still the largest organisation of its kind in the US. After this point Kramer became the thorn in the side of both the homophobic establishment and gay apathy alike. When the government was wilfully slow to act on hundreds of dying Americans in the 1980s, Kramer started ACT-UP.

He’s still fighting both his own illness and the establishment that didn't expect him to live so long.

David Hoyle

‘When any of us start to look for approval and encouragement from within the corporate sector, you might as well top yourself. And that’s what we’re going to do tonight’

‘People often ask me if I prefer Manchester United or Manchester City, and I always say, they’re both lovely’

‘Join us as we explore Manchester’s Gay Village, its relevance - what is it saying to us? Is it a powder keg of the avante garde?’

It’s hard to think in ‘iconic’ terms of someone who’s been round to your flat but the various charming, disarming, scary and/or confrontational personae of fellow Blackpudlian David’s on-stage creations can always leave you star-struck and panting. That his incarnation as the Divine David caught the imagination of so many (the adoring and trend-setting Duckie collective amongst them) was indicative not only of how high he set the bar for politicised ‘cabaret’ but of something like a change of consciousness in the gay scene. In other words, you hoped that everyone would get him, and they did. Gay people sometimes need a brutally scathing kind of satire to shake us up and David’s always starts from the assumption/insistence that we all love each other first. No doubt he’s spiritual godfather of sorts to post-gay performance terrorists like Jonny Woo and Scottee, but mostly he’s just very, very funny.

Lawrence D. Mass and Arnie Kantrowitz

Aged twenty I was most likely an incipient alcoholic, certainly deeply closeted, and a student. On my University course and in my own reading I immersed myself in any kind of liberation literature I could get my hands on. I studied feminist rhetoric and did my dissertation on Civil Rights novels in either a repetitive act of masochism or a subconscious attempt to try and learn the language of liberation myself for use at some hazy point in the future. I was in the midst of my Jewish phase when I came across Larry Mass’s book Confessions Of A Jewish Wagnerite. It had a naked man on the cover, I don’t know how I dared buy it, I didn’t actually remember picking it up when I got home, perhaps I stole it. I hope so.

The series of autobiographical essays are about Mass’ coming-to-consciousness as a forcibly assimilated and self-denying Jew, and as a gay man. It’s full of opera of course, and is frequently, horribly bourgeois (at one point he walks into an ostentatiously over-decorated room and is so offended he actually vomits). It’s also deeply insightful, beautifully written and responsible for the tiny seed that helped me eventually come out after another four years of trying to party myself dead.

Along with Larry Kramer and others, Mass, a physician, was one of the founders of GMHC and published the very first paper addressing the spate of mysterious illnesses affecting gay men in urban areas. His partner of many years is Arnie Kantrowitz who wrote Under The Rainbow, a heart-rending but hopeful autobiography about growing up gay in America. Kantrowitz is also a lifelong activist, co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) amongst other things, one of that generation who just seem tireless when we can’t usually be bothered to even sign a petition, let alone bury a friend every week for ten years and still find the strength to write, educate, work and teach. Arnie has no Wikipedia entry, I think I’ll write one for him.

Frank O’Hara


How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget's steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting's not so blue

where's Lana Turner
she's out eating
and Garbo's backstage at the Met
everyone's taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park's full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we're all winning
we're alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building's no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

oh god it's wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

Terry Higgins

Such is the monolith of the charitable industries of AIDS that the name ‘Terrence Higgins’ has become little more than a brand, but the story of the first man in the UK to officially succumb to AIDS is nothing short of film-worthy. Born in 1945, a genuine baby-boomer, Terry was only 37 when he died of the disease in 1982. He was a renegade with a debauched, maverick sense of humour (he‘d painted his Royal Navy ship with a hammer and sickle to get himself discharged).

At the time he became sick he was working as both Hansard Reporter in the House of Commons and as a barman in Heaven, the oldest gay club in London, which meant he could walk from his day-time overground life to night-time underground existence in a matter of minutes and if there’s a better metaphor for the duality of gay life I’d like to hear it.

It was in Heaven, summer 1982, that Terry collapsed on the dancefloor as the sickness started to take hold. Such was the dearth of knowledge about the illness in those early years that Terry’s boyfriend selected to study HIV as part of his PhD, and tested positive himself, in his own lab, in 1984.

Asked what Terry might have made of having a charity set up in his memory, his boyfriend said, ‘I think he would have found it very funny’. He sounds like a man worth knowing.

Arthur Russell

‘It's a big old world
with nothing in it
and I can't wait to see you
another minute’

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Gay Icons: Part 1

I decided to do a response to the Gay Icons exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery which was, in the end, somewhat predictable, both in terms of the people asked to choose and the icons they selected. I haven’t seen the exhibition or all the portraits included and neither have I, for my own list, agonised over what constitutes a ‘gay icon’. My reasoning is that since I'm gay, anyone who is an icon to me is a gay icon. Simple. Some of my choices are there at the National but I’m certain my reasons are more interesting than whatever possessed Elton John to include Graham Taylor, for instance. Looking back at these choices I realise that what unites them is not that they make me proud to be gay particularly, and not all of them are gay, but that if I wasn’t gay I might not be able to understand or admire them as much as I do, and in every case that would be a sad, sad thing.

Quentin Crisp

His laziness and utter lack of materialism are more revolutionary now than ever. ‘I can’t afford to be gay’ would be an alien concept to him. His absolute resolution and clarity about his own homosexuality was such that, in all innocence, it took some time for him to truly grasp that he was an aberration in the world. Hence my favourite part of the filmed version of The Naked Civil Servant is when his mother’s friend enquires, ‘You’re not one of those who doesn’t love women are you?’ and Quentin replies, ‘Well that’s just it, I don’t think anybody does’. Aside from anything, having seen a generation documented in art who either killed themselves or vanished into loveless heterosexual lives/lies, followed shortly by a generation that died as punishment for sexual liberation, it’s just nice to see a gay man who was honest to goodness old.

Joe Dallesandro

Poster-boy for the National exhibition and significant in all sorts of ways. While poor Lou Reed was sent upstate by his parents in an attempt to have his homosexuality fried out of him, the impossibly beautiful, effortlessly masculine and heterosexual Joe took his place on the throne of New York’s sexual underbelly as number one object of desire. Muse to Reed, Gerard Malanga, Paul Morrissey and Warhol himself, his passivity in terms of the ruthless gaze he was forever under was in itself utterly seductive. After several years fucking around for cash and/or art with people of many genders he eventually professed that, in terms of cock, he eventually just got a taste for it, and that kind of sexual liberation put his kaftan-and-marijuana peers right back into their dressing-up boxes.

Victoria Wood

‘I remember very well the fact that Joyce Grenfell was standing on the stage on her own. I loved the fact she was peopling the stage with nothing but words. She was an inspiration, not just because she was good but because it put the idea in my head of a woman standing on stage on her own and that was a very powerful image’

‘What do you think are the main themes of Othello, Sarah?’
‘Erm, I don’t think it’s got one really, it’s just various people talking … and sometimes they do things in brackets’

‘I saw you today, well I just saw your blazer
and it went through my heart like the beam of a lazer
and I thought that today you would turn round and see me but you didn’t’

‘Oh God, oh God, there’s no piano! Barbara where are my tissues?’
‘Look, I love Blue Peter but even I can’t make a piano out of a box of tissues’

‘I have wasted years behaving
in a way I thought was ‘proper’
and it’s hard to do
no-one cared, no-one knew’

‘Hormones, they’re those things you don’t know you’ve got till you run out of them’
‘Like split peas?’
‘Well yes, except if you run out of split peas you don’t go red and grow a moustache’
‘I wouldn’t bank on it’

Her written output of the last twenty odd years has surpassed and outlived even polari as the true lingua franca of the British queen. Her work covers the same ground as Alan Bennett and Morrissey and like them she shares a wry, self-aware and vaguely tragic outlook that outside of the North is called camp. You only have to post a one-liner on Facebook to watch the gay, tickled and word-perfect hordes come following: ‘Her ears are in the wrong place for a polo neck …’ ‘He died whilst falling under a bus …’ ‘Grey eggs, is that an Arab custom..?’ ‘Suede-effect pochette packed to the drawstring with handy-sized oddments …’ ‘Are they to have porridge ..?’ Ad infinitum, but never ad nauseum.

Bob Mould

‘Band seeks bassist into Hüsker Dü and Peter, Paul & Mary’. When Kim Deal answered this advert, The Pixies, the second most important band ever to come out of America, were born. Hüsker Dü have been relegated to a lesser status in musical history but New Day Rising remains a key artefact of 80s punk/indie/hardcore. At the band’s helm was Bob Mould, the quiet, unassuming but committed axeman/songwriter with an addictive personality and fruitfully depressed creative streak. After Hüsker Dü fell apart, his new band Sugar managed to ride the tail of what was by then called grunge, but really was the new American antidote to heavy metal that Bob Mould had helped create. Beaster and Copper Blue are classics of the period, while his later album Workbook is, in my humble opinion, one of the best solo albums recorded. Bob is gay, out, never bleats too much about it but was a key player in a world where I, as a naïve teenager, never thought gay men could be. A few years ago he contributed ‘If I Can’t Change Your Mind’ to an album supporting gay marriage in the States. The song was already written and recorded with Sugar but the title and lyrics became extra-poignant in their new context:

‘And all throughout the years
I never strayed from you my dear
But you suspect I'm somewhere else
You're feeling sorry for yourself
Leaving with a broken heart
I love you even still
If I can't change your mind
Then no one will’

Judy Garland and Sylvia Ray Rivera

Arnie Kantrowitz once described first hearing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ as ‘Like hearing the national anthem of a country of which I didn’t yet know I was a citizen’. So no Kylie, no Dusty and no Barbra in the official line up ... but no Judy? Come off it. ‘Art’, wrote Toni Morrison, ‘makes another thing possible’, and Judy’s death was every bit as artful as her life, which is to say, lonely, hard work and with little satisfaction. What could be more gay? What her death made possible, in a majestically camp and karmic way, was a partial galvanisation of queeny hysteria into the window-smashing rage of the Stonewall riots.

Okay it’s partly an urban myth but it’s beautiful and it’s ours. Sylvia Ray Rivera, New York street transvestite and one of the original and most committed of the Stonewall Bar rioters, commented that on hearing of Judy’s demise, ‘I decided to become completely hysterical’. There are centuries of queer wit and insight in that phrase: ‘I decided to become completely hysterical’. Most importantly, there is agency, the agency of the fag in heels who isn’t going to take it any more. The days of rioting that followed Judy’s death turned New York City upside down for gay people. The link with her death is poetic license of the sort that might never occur to any kind of person but one who can readily translate the loss of a lonely old chanteuse into political revolt and burning dustbins in Greenwich Village.

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Great big thanks to everyone who came down to The Purple Pussycat on Friday night. What a brilliant laugh. I played a three hour set of my very favourite eighties tunes including the following (anoraks amongst you might spot a couple from 1990 too …)

Clouds Across The Moon -The Rah Band

Since Yesterday - Strawberry Switchblade

Forget Me Nots - Patrice Rushen
IOU - Freeez
System Addict - Five Star

Real Gone Kid - Deacon Blue

Thriller - Michael Jackson

Land Of Make Believe - Bucks Fizz

Give Me The Night - George Benson

Fade To Grey - Visage
The Goonies R Good Enough - Cyndi Lauper

Sweet Little Mystery - Wet Wet Wet

I Don’t Wanna Fall In Love - Jane Child
Drop The Pilot - Joan Armatrading

Hand On Your Heart - Kylie Minogue

Walk Of Life - Dire Straits

Breakout - Swingout Sister

The Look Of Love - ABC

Happy Hour - The Housemartins

When Doves Cry - Prince

We Close Our Eyes - Go West

Back To Life - Soul II Soul

Holiday Road - Lyndsey Buckingham

Invisible Touch - Genesis
Dancing On The Ceiling - Lionel Richie

Crash - The Primitives

Ain’t Nothing Going On But The Rent - Gwen Guthrie

Down Under - Men At Work
Ask - The Smiths
Ai No Corrida - Quincy Jones

Boys Don’t Cry - The Cure

Come On Eileen - Dexy’s Midnight Runners

The Only Way Is Up - Yazz And The Plastic Population

Fame is the last Friday of every month, free entry and a great bar.