Saturday, 20 May 2017

Jackie Shane Was A Drag Queen



Recently, there has been a lot of publicity about Jackie Shane, a drag performer from the 60’s in Toronto. Shane was a consummate artist and a gender warrior, and a significant part of our queer heritage (see Carl Wilson’s excellent article on Hazlitt).
But misinformation has appeared in some recent articles; principally the false idea that Jackie Shane was a ‘transgender’ performer.
This is not true. Jackie Shane now reportedly identifies as a transgender woman and uses the pronoun ‘she.’ I respect that, and we all should. But during the 60’s when he performed in Toronto at various Yonge Street coffee houses and recorded an album, he identified as gay, and as a drag queen -- part of a proud tradition of American ‘tent queens’ who used the pronoun he. 
Why do these distinctions matter?
Because recently there have been concerted attempts to erase the history of drag, and to disrespect drag itself. I don’t think this is Jackie Shane’s fault. It is the fault of those who are trying to use Jackie Shane to further their cause.
At a queer academic conference this summer, I had to endure young queer people saying that drag is misogynistic and drag queens appropriate black music. I do not understand these accusations. When it comes to appropriation, drag queens are not the culprits. Capitalism and the record industry are to blame, not some struggling gender warrior on a street corner trying to make a few pennies performing at a gay bar. In terms of misogyny, anyone who accuses drag queens of being misogynistic hasn’t read their Judith Butler (or are we throwing her in the garbage now too?) who valorized drag as the exemplary pioneer of gender freedom; releasing us from the notion that men must act like men, and women must act like women. 
I am a drag queen. I met Leslie Feinberg back in the 80’s. Leslie -- like Jackie --  is a significant gender warrior (Stone Butch Blues) who bravely broke down gender boundaries  back in the 80s. S/he was wearing a signature masculine ‘power suit’ when we met. Back then, I talked to Leslie about my drag persona ‘Jane,’ and Leslie was eager to meet Jane; s/he hugged me, and we bonded. I’ll never forget that moment.
Unfortunately it seems solidarity like that is now a thing of the past. Nowadays there are ‘good’ gender warriors and ‘bad’ ones. Drag queens are ‘bad’ gender warriors -- not only because of accusations of appropriation and misogyny, but because they are considered ‘gender tourists.’ However, the fact is drag queens are not masculine men who choose to drop their privilege for a few moments a month to perform for their friends, but effeminate gay men who have been vilified and bullied all their lives, men for whom drag is a safe refuge to celebrate the best part of themselves -- their femininity, vulnerability, and gentleness.
Let me say it here -- to all those who wish to erase the history of proud drag queens like Jackie Shane:
I, for one, won’t let you do it.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Why Aaron Hernandez’s Sexuality Matters



There is a lot of talk about Aaron Hernandez. Understandably. He was football star -- a New England Patriots tight end who was convicted of murder and recently committed suicide in jail. Hernandez was convicted of shooting his friend Odin Lloyd on June 17, 2013 and sentenced to life.
But the case appears to be more complicated than that. Hernandez did not just commit suicide, he wrote ‘John:16’ on his forehead, and scrawled ‘Illuminati’ on the wall. Though he had a fiancĂ© and a child, there were rumours that he had a gay relationship with a best friend (whom he allegedly tried to leave large sums of money in his will), and that teammates made fun of him for being bisexual. On top of that, it appears that Hernandez may have had a male lover in prison -- and that he may have written his lover a suicide note.
Who cares if Aaron Hernandez was gay, or bisexual or whatever?
I care very much and you should too.
We will never know the details of Aaron Hernandez’s sex life; we will doubtless never know the details of anyone’s sex life -- what happens behind closed doors is inscrutable and personal. 
Nevertheless, Aaron Hernandez’s sexuality matters -- not because of what we know about it or will ever know --  but because of public reaction to such speculation.
Let me explain.
The general consensus in both the liberal and conservative media seems to be that now that Aaron Hernandez is dead we should stop talking about his sexuality. This isn’t so objectionable in and of itself. But why does the media think this? Because they believe it is disrespectful to speculate on whether or not he was gay. For instance, Hernandez’s attorney, Joan Baez states “These are malicious leaks used to tarnish someone who is dead.” Cyd Zeigler, founder of the GLBT sports publication Outsports.com says “What relevance is there to the public interest of who someone has sex with, particularly in prison? If that’s of public interest, why don’t we start outing everybody?””
First of all, why is it malicious to suggest someone is gay? It’s great to be gay. I love being gay, and I think more people should be gay, including Aaron Hernandez, whether dead or alive. Secondly, you can’t ‘out’ a dead person. I understand that it’s not fair to reveal the sexuality of a living person against their wishes. But once they are dead, our only responsibility is to the truth.
What is distasteful is not the idea that Hernandez was gay, or that he cheated on his wife, or that his son may now find out that he was bisexual. What is distasteful is the homophobia that that is revealed by the fear of discussing his sexuality after his death.
And I’ll tell you what’s malicious: the jokes about Aaron Hernandez being a ‘tight end.’
Do you find yourself laughing at that, just a little bit?
Could it be because homophobia isn’t ‘over’?  Could it be that we are all still more than just a little bit afraid of the idea of a massive, athletic, masculine, straight-looking, sports-loving gay man?
And that -- not speculation about Hernandez’s sexuality --  is the real problem.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

I Disagree With You, J. Kelly




First of all I want to say this: I am very pleased J. Kelly Nestruck exists. It’s heartening to know someone is writing a column in a major newspaper about  theories of the theatre. In this bottom-line, mega-corporate, digitally dominated world, the fact that a heterosexual male holding a position of power is interested in debating aesthetics gives me hope.
That said, I must take issue with all this talk about ‘liveness.’ J. Kelly, like Jordan Tannahill before him (in his recent book Theatre of the Unimpressed) is intent on stressing the seemingly statutory imperative of the day -- that all theatrical performances must acknowledge that they are ‘live,’ and that we must immediately cease attempting to suspend our disbelief. 
Respectfully, I disagree. 
I am certainly tired of having ‘liveness’ stuffed down my throat. I saw two productions last week in which an actor from the play stepped forward at the end and spoke directly to us to remind us that we were watching a play. One of the plays was fabulous, the other was not -- this device didn’t stop me from enjoying the one play and hating the other -- but I am just dreadfully tired of a technique that has become trendy but doesn’t make sense.
At the heart of this discussion is the fallacious notion that there is such a thing as ‘reality’ in the theatre. The notion that if we are watching actors who are playing themselves or who -- as is mentioned in J. Kelly’s recent article -- even bother to acknowledge that they are acting in a play, then we are watching something that is more ‘real’ than a play in which actors are playing fictional characters saying made-up lines. But why would anyone think actors onstage are ever being real? Let’s leave aside the ultra-loaded post-modernist question (What is real?), or the issue of whether or not we are ever ‘real in real life. As soon as people walk onstage and perform, they are doing something fake. They are, at the very least, being themselves for ‘public consumption,’ and in this era of celebrity worship we know exactly what that means. Let me tell you, I know a lot of actors personally, and as much as I love them, they are masters at keeping you away from what they are really thinking -- because they are, well -- actors. That’s their job.
As far as I’m concerned, Brecht took the whole matter as far as it can go. Everyone loves the notion that we are improving, that our theatre is getting more and more ‘real’. But though Brecht acknowledged a play could alternately engage you and alienate you, that actors might step in and out of their parts -- he never completely abandoned plot, or the notion of fiction or characters. He was smart enough to know it was folly to imagine that theatre could ever be ‘real.’
When directors create what they think is the ultimate ‘reality’ in theatre it usually ends up feeling a lot like group therapy.
There is no craft. (I know, I mentioned that horrible word, craft).
Anyway, pillory me if you like, or just ignore me (which is most likely) or call me old-fashioned (which many have done before).

But I’m awfully tired of ‘liveness.’

Saturday, 1 April 2017

What’s Wrong With Theatre


There’s something wrong with theatre these days.
There are two, maybe ten people turning up sometimes. Is it because the plays are bad? Or is it because the audiences are stupid?
I’ve long enjoyed bashing audiences. And as condo-dwellers take over the downtown core and we all becomes more suburban, I can’t help noticing that audiences are becoming stupider.There’s not much we can do about that. Kinky Boots sure seems experimental for those whose main entertainment diet consists of Batman and Cinderella.
But I’m not going to complain about Toronto audiences here; I’m going to complain about the plays.
After all, a really good play can tempt even the most complacent suburban patron to leave the house.
But the plays these days are dull. No wonder people aren’t going.
In Theatre of the Unimpressed, Jordan Tannahill makes the case that the best theatre emphasizes its liveness. 
I think liveness is important, but you can be as ‘live’ as you want, and still devise a bad play 
These days, from the moment a play starts you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. Period. And I’m not talking about melodrama, or ‘whodunnit.’ I’m talking about the moral issues that a good play might choose to debate, present, or hide as subtext.
These days plays are about oppression, or wrongdoing, or evil, and the author always tells us who the oppressors, wrongdoers or evildoers are.
So where’s he moral suspense?
Where’s he dangerous fun?
We don’t know much about Shakespeare; but we do know he could write a great play. And it isn’t so much that Shakespeare isn’t interested in ideas or opinions (actually his plays contain lots them) it’s that he mastered one of the most important principles of classical rhetoric:
Never let the audience know where your real sympathies lie.
A great debater can convincingly argue both sides of the abortion issue; a great playwright can make us believe that any character -- even Macbeth, Richard III or Iago  is still somewhat sympathetic.
Bad plays aren’t going to stop me from going to the theatre; believe me, I love all theatre, no matter how bad it is.

But if we’re going to lure Toronto audiences away from Broadway pap, we’re going to have to do better than that.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

OPEN LETTER TO STEPHEN SONDHEIM

Dear Stephen Sondheim,

 I'm writing this because I was sitting on the bus this afternoon listening to Barbra Streisand sing ‘Send in The Clowns’ on my ‘Best of’ Barbra Streisand album. Now usually, when I’m listening to anyone sing ‘Send in the Clowns’ I can’t get Elizabeth Taylor from the movie version out of my head. You know that moment Steve (can I call you Steve, like Oscar Hammerstein used to?) --  that moment when Elizabeth Taylor gazes down at her own humungous breasts in that terrifyingly low-cut gown and inquires “Are we a pair?”
But today it was another lyric that struck me --
“Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it queer? Losing my timing, this late in my career?”
Okay, I’ll say it.
Why, oh why Steve, did you have to use the word ‘queer’? I mean couldn’t you have written --
“Isn’t it rich? Isn’t odd? Losing my timing this late in my job?”
Hm. I guess that’s not quite as good.
Maybe that’s why you’re Stephen Sondheim and I’m not.
But you see the point is Steve that there are loads of words that rhyme with ‘career’. The problem with queer is that it doesn’t just mean ‘odd’ it also means ‘homosexual.’ And I’m sure you’re aware of this Steve -- as you are gay -- a lot of little gay boys just love your musicals. And when they run to their parents to play them their favourite song they have to watch as Dad winces when Barbra (Elizabeth Taylor, or Glynis Johns) sings ‘isn’t it queer’ thinking ‘Oh no, Dad knows what that means. It means....me!’
Now I could understand if you don’t want to do this right now. Maybe you don’t want to change the lyric at this late date.
I mean after all, A Little Night Music is kind of a masterpiece, and all.
But, wait.
I have another idea.
There’s still time for you to write that big, gay musical! (Jerry Herman did it!) I mean do you want to die (sorry to bring that up, really I am, but-) without writing your  big gay ‘opus’? You don’t want to end up like Edward Albee, do you? Gay, dead and no gay opus?
I wouldn’t think so.
Uh-oh.
I hope I haven’t offended you.
It was...well it was just a suggestion.
And I hope I didn’t step out of bounds by calling you Steve, Mr. Sondheim.
It’s just that after hearing your work I just feel we are so close.
Very Sincerely,
Sky Gilbert



Saturday, 11 March 2017

I AM NOT YOUR STRAIGHT NEGRO




I eagerly attended the documentary about James Baldwin called I Am Not Your Negro. I was especially excited because Baldwin has always been somewhat of a hero for me; a gay misfit whose iconic and beautiful gay novel Giovanni’s Room changed so many lives.
Well lo and behold, as I sat through the flic I became more and more befuddled. Had I imagined it? Was James Baldwin actually straight? He certainly doesn’t talk about his gayness in this particular documentary -- although at one point in the movie Baldwin answers someone’s accusation that he was a homosexual (without speaking of being gay).
So just to set the record straight (or should I say crooked?): James Baldwin was gay. Or perhaps to be completely accurate, I should say he was homosexual (as the term ‘gay’ didn’t come into common parlance until the end of his life). His sex life was somewhat complicated by the fact that he was quite effeminate and not beautiful in a traditional way. Also, his preference was for straight and bisexual men. The love of Baldwin’s life was Lucien Happsberger, a 17 year old, white, bisexual Swiss artist whom Baldwin met in Paris. Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room (published in 1956) tells a very tragic -- some might say discouraging -- gay tale; but no one could argue that it was not enormously revolutionary for its time.
So why make a documentary about Baldwin and ignore the fact that he was gay?
The most obvious answer is homophobia. It would appear that anti-racists are afraid of muddying their cause by bringing sexuality into the discussion. If you are trying to convince racists in a homophobic society that black people are okay it might hurt your argument to admit that some black men are gay.
However, the buck doesn’t stop with I Am Not Your Negro. The film is just one of many instances of race trumping sexuality. When someone is black and gay it seems to be more important to talk about racism than homophobia.
I heard via the grapevine that the Academy Award winning film Moonlight was a film about a gay black man. I went to see it, and outside of one brief scene of adolescent masturbation the leading characters are unable to come to terms with their sexuality; as adults they can hardly speak of their teenage shenanigans, and they barely touch. The website rogerebert.comsays the film is about “a boy and then a man who has trouble figuring out his place in the world.” Elsewhere I have seen the film described as being about ‘friendship.’
I am (as you may have guessed) a white gay man. Some will say that I don’t have any right to talk about this because I don’t understand what it means to be black. I will accept the latter but not the former. 
Believe me, I don’t want to write about this. But someone has to.

Please?

Thursday, 2 March 2017

It’s Time to Break the Silence Around PrEP



Have you heard about PrEP?

Well if you have, you could be forgiven for being confused.

PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a drug that stops HIV negative people from becoming infected with HIV. Simply put, if you are HIV negative and you take it and then have sex with someone HIV positive who is not wearing protection, it is highly unlikely that you will become infected with HIV.

But exactly what you know about PrEP depends a lot on where you get your information.

The San Francisco AIDS Foundation says that “for people who take 7 PrEP pills per week, their estimated level of protection is 99%”

Sounds great! I’m gonna get some PrEP!
But wait....

The Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta says “Daily PrEP reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex by more than 90%.”

Hm...that doesn’t sound quite as good. 

And what does Toronto’s own associate officer of medical health Dr. Rita Shahin say? “People on PrEP … could be more likely to acquire STIs because they may not be using condoms.”

Gee Whiz. Thanks for the useful information, Rita!

What is going on here? What is the conspiracy of silence -- which is really a conspiracy of lies -- surrounding a drug that could change our lives? Why is it that the only time we hear about PrEP on CBC is when a doctor is advising us not to take it? PrEP is a major breakthrough in the fight against AIDS. HIV negative people can now protect themselves from being HIV positive. Why isn’t this news being shouted from the rooftops? 

Most importantly, why aren’t gay men happy about PrEP and why aren’t they ‘spreading the news’? 

Could it be guilt? Could it be shame? Could it be that all these years of people telling us that AIDS is God’s punishment for our sexuality has actually made us hate ourselves? I understand that PrEP doesn’t protect against Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Chlamydia and Hepatitis, and people should still wear condoms.  But that is a separate issue.

The real news is this: THE PLAGUE THEY SAID WOULD KILL US ALL IS NOW UNDER CONTROL!

Is there some reason why no one seems to want people to know about the effectiveness of PrEP?

It’s a question that plagues me. 
And honestly, I’m very afraid of the answer.