Wednesday, March 11, 2020

1969 All Over Again

Last June I posted an excerpt from a work-in-progress titled Gigi Freeman, a comic/social/political/historical/science-fiction novel about an extraordinarily capable drag queen (an/or transgender woman) of color who works as a private secretary to a high-priced Manhattan attorney in the years before and after the Stonewall Riots. Well, I have another excerpt to share with you. Even though the bulk of the novel will take place in the late 1960s and early '70s, this particular excerpt takes place in the 1980s. Now, don't take that late date to mean I'm almost finished. The novel is non-linear, meaning I don't have to pay too much attention to a silly thing like chronology. That said, there may be a few things that you'll find puzzling, as they deal with events elsewhere in the novel. If you're patient and stay with it, about halfway though--I put in an image as a kind of dividing line--it becomes easier to understand as the characters talk about what to them is the here-and-now. Despite some facts sprinkled in, and that two of the more prominent characters (as well as a few mentioned in passing) were real people, the whole thing is fictional. Think of it not as a scholarly account of LGBTQ history, but instead my eccentric musings about that history. Also keep in mind the evolving nature of the English language, never more so than when it comes to describing the LGBTQ community. Some terms that are clearly defined and considered distinct from each other in 2020 (such as "drag queen" and "transvestite") may not have been so clearly defined or distinct from each other in an earlier era.

Let me set the time and place. It's mid-morning, August 02, 1986, somewhere in Greenwich Village...

     Saul found himself holding back tears and couldn't understand why. The man meant nothing to him anymore, and should never have meant anything to him to begin with. Other than an appearance on 60 Minutes, and the times he had popped up in the news (such as during his recent disbarment), he hadn't laid eyes on him in six years. And that was just, in hindsight, a disastrously misguided attempt to get his former--Guardian? Stepfather? Landlord? His nanny's boss?--to come out of the closet, one that had it been successful would have proven what exactly? That even fascists can be role models for gay youth? That even right-wing hypocrites deserve the Movement's support and understanding? Saul got enough criticism from certain quarters of that movement for caring more about quantity than quality when it came to outing celebrities. And those same critics might well have wondered how Saul knew such a person in the first place. So it was just as well that the coming out hadn't come off. But why did he feel like crying?

     "Saul, dear, are you still there?" asked the familiar voice on the other end of the line.

     Saul sighed and answered, "Yes, Gigi, I'm still here."

     "I know this must be as hard for you as it is for me."

     That proved the cure. Saul no longer felt grief-stricken but instead grievously insulted!

      "It's not hard for me at all, Gigi! Just tell me what happened."

     As he listened to Gigi describe what happened, Saul took no notice of the two intruders who walked unannounced from the outer office of the Manhattan branch of the Gay Emancipation League--there was no receptionist, secretary, or office manager to announce them as all three were now on sick leave--to the office of the Founder and National Director of GEL, Saul himself, where the two of them were now able to eavesdrop on one half of what remained of that telephone conversation:

     "A Von Hoffman showed up at the hospital?.........Well, I'm glad you said you were too upset to talk to him.....Deny! Deny everything!...What do you mean, what for? Gigi, tell me, you're not actually planning on going to the funeral, are you?.......You don't have to get testy with me! I was just asking....Aw, c'mon, Gigi........I know you two went back a long way but--Tell me, Gigi, how did you ever hook up with RC in the first place?......Don't you mean Club 82?.........Oh, Jesus Christ, not Hoover, too................Ever think of going to a temp agency?.........Oh, yeah, I forgot about that...Well, Gigi, it seems to me RC took advantage of your little psychological problem.........OK, Gigi, calm down! I was just joking!...I don't have time to explain the punchline...Dr. Joyce Brothers? No kidding...Say that again........If you must go, then, yes, I think you should go as Leonard. I doubt they'll let you through the door as Gigi.........Gigi, there's a big difference between a funeral parlor and Studio 54.........Well, I suppose you could wear a veil, but everyone knows RC didn't leave a widow......Am I going to the funeral?! Gigi, do you have any idea of my standing in the Gay Rights Movement?! How can you even..........Just asking. OK, Gigi, you got me, we're even....What's that?....RC left me something? DON'T TELL ME THAT ASSHOLE ACTUALLY NAMED ME IN HIS WILL! Gigi, if this gets out.........Oh...Well, I never heard of the deceased bequeathing something 'under the table' before, but I don't want any of RC's dirty money..............No, I don't have health insurance, but I don't have any symptoms either.......OK, we'll talk about it when you get back...I love you, too.......As a friend, we're not going steady...OK...uh huh...see you then. G'bye."

     Saul hung up the phone, looked up at the figure standing before him, let out a scream, and backed his swivel chair against the wall with such force he slammed his head against a bulletin board, knocking down a photo of the Broadway cast of  La Cage aux Folles.

     "Careful, Sauly," said Marsha.

     Saul immediately realized his mistake.

     "Oh, shit, I'm sorry, Marsha. I thought you were Gigi."

     Laughing, Marsha replied, "Oh, it's quite all right. I know us drag queens all look alike."

     Standing right be her side as usual, Sylvia remarked, "He didn't mistake me for Gigi."

     "That's because your wig is blond."

     Embarrassed, Saul tried to explain, "You see, I was just talking to her on the phone when I turned and saw you--" He stopped before he dug himself too deep. One funeral this week was enough.

     "I said it was all right. I heard you talking to Gigi when we walked in. Where is she, anyway? I know she left town in a hurry."

     "She's in Bethesda, Maryland. I'm afraid I have some--" he stopped himself from saying bad "--news--"

     "Heard it on the radio," Sylvia interrupted. "There's been a death in the family. Your family."

     Ouch, thought Saul. That was bitchy of her. Even more bitchy than usual.

     "Now, Sylvia," Marsha said in a mildly admonishing tone. "You enjoyed the man's hospitality, too."

     "Hospitality?" Sylvia lowered her voice to a murmur, mimicking the way RC talked whenever Gigi's friends were around. "Oh, um, hi, Sylvia, hi, Marsha, hi, StormĂ©."

      Thinking maybe this was an opportunity to nip a potential scandal in the bud, Saul said, "Look, girls, it's not the reason I asked you here today, but we can talk this over if you'd like."

     "So talk," said Sylvia. 

     Something was bugging her, but what? Saul had no choice but to continue.

     "Gigi said there's already somebody writing a biography of RC, and--"

     "And you want us to cooperate?" asked Marsha.

     Horrified, Saul sputtered, "No, no, no, no, no!"

     Marsha smiled her huge smile and said, "Calm down, Sauly. I was just joking, just like you said you were when you were talking to Gigi. How long does it take to explain a punchline, anyway?"

     How much of that phone call had they listened to? At least they couldn't hear Gigi's cutting remarks on the other end.

     Sylvia wasn't smiling. "So what do me and Marsha care if someone's writing a biography of Gigi's sugar daddy and your foster father--"

     "HE WAS NOT MY FOSTER FATHER!" How dare the bitch!

     Marsha was still smiling (but then she rarely ever stopped.) "Ooh, temperatures are rising! Soon it will be hotter in here than it is outside. We should all just calm down. Would anyone like to sample some of my Thorazine? It works wonders for me. I now look both ways before I cross the street!"

     Sylvia laughed at that, and Saul found himself laughing right along with her. He had forgotten about Marsha's mental condition. The new medication had restored her wit along with her sanity. In fact, she could be as funny as Gigi at times. But then he had never known a drag queen that didn't have a sense of humor. There was something about wearing a dress that made a man want to do shtick. Look at Flip Wilson. Or Milton Berle.

     Since the mood, however temporarily, had lightened, Saul decided to take one last stab at getting both of them to keep their lips zipped.

     "Look, now that RC is no more, there's going to be all kinds of reporters and, like I said, a biographer, snooping around, and Gigi's name could be dragged through the mud. She's our friend and I want to make sure that doesn't happen."

     "Wait a second," said Marsha. "You just got off the phone with her. Is this something Gigi is worried about?"

     "Gigi's very upset right now and can't think straight. She needs us to protect her."

     "When Gigi's upset, she can't think slanted. Are you sure this isn't about your own protection?"

     Ouch again, thought Saul.
     Surprisingly, Sylvia now came to the rescue. 

     "What about our own protection, Marsha? Look, Saul, I'm sorry about the foster father crack. It was a low blow, and I've always considered you a friend. But I'm afraid of getting dragged through the mud myself. I don't want everyone to find out that I've actually been inside that man's house!"

     "Well, Sylvia, we only went there to see Gigi," Marsha countered. "That's hardly a headline you'd find in the National Enquirer."

     Saul wasn't worried about the National Enquirer. He was worried about The Advocate, The Village Voice, The Nation, and now, apparently, Marsha.

     Nervously, he asked her, " might say something?"

     Marsha again laughed, and said, "Oh, you don't have to worry about me, Sauly. I didn't know about Mister Cohn's political past when we first met. I don't think I even knew who the president was back then. But I'm much more politically aware now. And I don't want the world to find out how close Mister Cohn came to derailing my and Sylvia's pet project. It would be rather embarrassing." 

     "What are you talking about?" asked Saul.

     "The trailer fiasco," Sylvia explained.

     "Oh. That's right. Gigi told me about that. But I thought it was public knowledge."

     "The trailer is public knowledge," Marsha further explained. "And the fiasco is public knowledge. But Mister Cohn's presence is not public knowledge. I don't want to have to answer a lot of questions about what he was doing there. So mum's the word!"

     Pleased, Saul said, "OK, then, here's the game plan. If some reporter or biographer asks about RC, just say you didn't know him. If the reporter doesn't believe you, then deny. Deny everything. If the reporter seems to have something on you, well, then, uh, you may have to talk, but talk off the record, and don't name names! Especially not the names of anyone in this room. Or Gigi's. Agreed?"

     "Agreed," said Marsha.

     "Agreed," said Sylvia.

     "Even without the trailer fiasco, Sauly, I still wouldn't say anything," Marsha added. "Like Sylvia, I, too, consider you a friend."

     Touched (as well as delighted that things were now going so well),  Saul replied, "Well, I consider you two ladies friends, too. We've known each other quite a while now, haven't we?" 

     "Ever since you were Pauly."

     "Well, I prefer Sauly, er, Saul these days." He thought he had put the old name behind him, only to discover later on that, etymologically, he couldn't.

     "You've been more than just a friend, Saul," said the now-affable Sylvia. "You've been an inspiration. I don't know if Gigi ever told you, but you're kind of the reason me and Marsha got into politics."

     "Really? No, she didn't. But that's kind of funny, because even though she's never seemed all that committed herself, it was Gigi who got me into politics, assuming you can even call what we do politics."

     "Well, what would you call it?" 

     "Making waves, rocking the boat, rattling cages, stirring things up, and, and that old favorite, rabble-rousing. I mean, those are things that I, and the Movement as a whole, have been accused of. When we're not being told we're going to burn in Hell. Politics? Whenever I hear that word, I think elections, people running for things. City Council. Congress. I'm not running for anything."

     "Ah, but you could run for something, Sauly."

     Her magnificent smile now in full force, Marsha proudly proclaimed, "President Florentino!" 

     Saul laughed, and replied, "I don't think so. For one thing, I'm only 34."

     "But the election is still two years away. You'll be old enough by then."

     "That's not all. It may not be unconstitutional, but I'm a high school dropout. Who'd want that in a president?"

     Sylvia laughed and said, "Hey, I'm a fifth-grade dropout, so you got my vote!"

     "You got my vote, too," said Marsha. "Though I did somehow manage to graduate from high school. For a street transvestite, that's like having a PhD!"

     "In that case, Marsha," Saul good-humorously suggested. "Maybe you should run for president. They already call you the 'Mayor of Christopher Street.'"

     "Oh, I'd rather be First Lady. Think about it, Sauly, you and me in the Rose Garden. We could make beautiful music together." She began humming "Hail to the Chief".

     It must be the Thorazine, thought Saul.

     "Wait a second!" Sylvia exclaimed. "I want to be part of this administration, too!" 

     "You can be Vice-President," Marsha replied.

     "Then I'd be over-educated. How about both of us be First Lady?"

     "Now, Sylvia, it wouldn't do to have a bigamist in the White House. But you know, now that I think about it, maybe Gigi should have first dibs on First Lady. After all, she's known Sauly the longest."

     Saul laughed and said, "Oh, I'd put Gigi in charge of the CIA. She'd be her own best agent." The conversation was getting to be a little too relaxed. After all, he had an impassioned plea to make. "Um, I have politics of a more grass-roots nature to share with you ladies." He got up from behind his desk.

     Marsha sighed, and said, "Community organizing always comes down to gardening." 

     Saul walked over to a closet and began opening the door.

     "I've got something for you girls to try on."

     "Oh! Is it the latest Paris fashions?" Marsha asked.

     "It better not be Benny Hill's old hand-me-downs."

     "That's better than Boy George's old hand-me-downs. What is that thing he wears anyway?" 

     Saul pulled out of the closet two black cardboard signs connected by straps.  

     "What's that?" asked Sylvia.

     "A sandwich board," Saul replied. "The kind you wear." He began pulling a second one out.

     "You want us to advertise?"

     "More like a public service announcement. Here, ladies, please try them on. I'll help you get in them."

     Saul held up one side of the sign up as Sylvia kind of backed up under the straps, and then gently left the front board down upon her chest. He did the same for Marsha. After each lady was outfitted, Saul sat down back behind the desk. Each torso-concealing sign had a pink triangle amidst all the black. Beneath, in big, white letters it read:

                                                       SILENCE = DEATH

     "Well, how do we look?" asked Marsha. 

     "You girls look beautiful. Protest becomes you. But then it always has."

     "What's this all about?" asked Sylvia.

     "OK, girls, here's the scoop. Me and a few of my gay activist colleagues are thinking of starting a new organization tentatively titled AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. ACT-UP for short. Really, at the moment we're just at the talking stage. If we go ahead with it, our public debut won't be until after the first of the year. Right now we're trying out different slogans, motifs, color schemes, things like that. What you're wearing is based on a poster created, or co-created, by an artist named Avram Finkelstein. Personally, I like it. It's short and to the point. Finkelstein has his own little group, or as he calls it, collective, but if we could somehow combine forces, I think this thing could really take off."

     "What about the Gay Men's Health Crises?" asked Marsha.

     "Oh, please!" exclaimed Sylvia, a sign of distaste on her face. "I went there about a month ago to volunteer, and they told me to leave and not come back until I was dressed in something more appropriate. I had on a white blouse and black pencil skirt. How appropriate can you get? I asked to talk to Rodger, but they told me he's not there anymore."

     "Rodger's with us. And so is Larry Kramer."

     "Larry Kramer?!" Sylvia's face was now a billboard of distaste. "Isn't he the guy who wrote Faggots? He's a gay inactivist!"

     "I haven't read his book," Saul lied. In fact, he had read it and then banned what he considered an anti-promiscuity diatribe from all GEL bookshelves. He had done so for political reasons. He was afraid that without the promise of casual sex, the straight world would prove too seductive for some gays. But now with AIDS, the straight world was more seductive than ever. Larry, far from feeling vindicated, knew that, too.

     "And anyway," Saul continued. "You should see the ideas Larry's coming up with. He's gone from Hollywood screenwriting to guerilla theater. He's a one-man Chicago Seven!"

     "He was with the Gay Men's Health Crises," Marsha said, thoughtfully. "Now, he's left, too?"

     "The GMHC means well," Saul replied. "But at this point they're about as effective as the Mattachine Society. We need more. A lot more. It's 1969 all over again, and that means no more Mr. Nice Gay. Only this time around instead of a riot to motivate us, we have a plague."

     Looking around the office, with its many photos of the National Director of the Gay Emancipation League under arrest, Marsha remarked, "But Sauly, you have your own organization!"

     "I'm afraid I'm going to have to put GEL on hold. Before I can go around emancipating gays, I have to first make sure they're breathing."  

     "It's just a shame," Marsha said, as she eyed a framed photo of a bloodied Saul tied up with cable and being dragged out of the CBS Building. "You've really built up this organization. You now have, what, four branches across the country, coast to coast?"

     "You should see how much I spend on Greyhound tickets." Seeing an opening, Saul thought, now's a good time for my sermon. "I mean, I'll try to keep all the offices open if I can, but the staffs at all four locations have really been decimated by this disease. I have no one to answer the phones or watch things as I'm off zapping public officials or trying to convince gay celebrities to come out of the closet. And some of those gay celebrities have died before I could get to them, like Rock Hudson. At least his death made the headlines. But the media ignores the masses of AIDS victims who were never famous. 10,000 deaths so far! An entire generation of young men have been wiped out! And these aren't like heart attacks, where someone who seems healthy suddenly drops dead. With AIDS, you decompose before you die! I've seen beautiful young men who could have posed for Michelangelo's David transformed into scarecrows over night! And the epidemic is far from peaking. There's been more AIDS diagnoses this year than all the years combined.  And all the old prejudices, all the old discrimination is back, not that it ever went that far away to begin with. AIDS sufferers are losing their jobs, getting evicted, getting turned down for service in restaurants. I've heard stories of doctors turning away AIDS patients! Politicians, the kind we were just talking about, the ones that run for office, are running away from this thing as fast as they can. I suppose you can argue it's the same old shit gay people have always gone through, except this time there's no closet to take refuge in. People notice weight loss, hair loss, and splotchy skin. And while this is going on, all the AIDS researchers can do is argue about who coined the term "HIV" first. Nobody cares. As far as straight society goes, we're disposable people. The more of us that die, the less guilt they have for overpopulation. That's why we have to fight back! If we don't, the Gay Rights Movement will go down as the biggest folly in history!" 

     Saul leaned back in his chair, feeling as if the wind had been knocked out of him. He had been rehearsing that spiel in his mind for the last couple of days, and now that he had actually voiced it, he felt strangely nervous. But rabble-rousing was the politics he had chosen for himself, and what rabble better to rouse than the two streetwise streetqueens who stood before him, the most unlikely pair of political activists the world has ever seen? For the sake of identity, they had opted for lives of destitution, and all the homelessness, drug abuse, and mental illness that so often went along with it. Yet each had a social conscience. You might even say they were idealists. But there was an attribute other than idealism that Saul was interested in at this particular moment.  For all their fey theatricality, these faux females brooked no bullshit, as he had been reminded several times during the course of the conversation. If he could convince Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera of the need for a more radical, civil-disobedient approach to fighting AIDS, he could convince anyone. That was the real reason he had asked them over. But were they convinced?

     Marsha was smiling as usual. Except now there was something unusual. She slowly leaned her head back about a fraction of an inch, and then forward again.

     A nod!

     Sylvia wasn't nodding. She looked skeptical.

     "Nice speech, Saul, but are these No More Mr. Nice Gays gonna want a couple of No More Miss Nice Girls hanging around their crusade? In the past, we've been too radical for the radicals." 

     "Is that what you're worried about? Look, as long as I have anything to say about it--" Saul hadn't yet told any of his gay activist colleagues that he was talking to Marsha and Sylvia. "--you two ladies will be part of this fight. Besides, you both have a following now. You're practically, um, gay rights-historical characters. To turn you two away would be like, ahhh, telling Susan B. Anthony that she can't be on the cover of Ms. magazine." 

     "You're reaching," said Sylvia.

     "Still, I like the idea of being historical," Marsha remarked. "Think maybe they could make my park bench a national landmark?"

     Sylvia laughed at that, and Saul, taking that as, well, not a bad sign, decided to hurry things along. He opened up a desk drawer and pulled out a Polaroid One Step camera. "Girls, I want to take a couple of pictures of you. I'm going to send them to Larry to see what he thinks." He might as well as find out sooner than later about the two latest recruits for the Cause.

     Saul stood up and put the camera to his face. As he looked through the viewfinder, he once gain read the words on the signs. Silence equals Death. But how well does that work in reverse? Was there still something out there that could tie him to RC, the man the Left loved to hate? He seemed to recall there was, but it had been such a long time, he could no longer remember quite what.

     "All right, Mr. DeMille, we're ready for our close-up." 

     Saul lowered the camera and said, "Um, Marsha, no smiling please. I want you girls to looked pissed. Snarl if you'd like. We've got a social order to crash. Again."

     "I get it," said Sylvia. "Let the revolution begin."

     "Power to the people," added Marsha, who had finally stopped smiling.