Sep 27, 2014

The Big Men of American Tall Tales

In the mid-1980s, Shelly Duvall (fresh from playing Olive Oyl in the Popeye movie) hosted a Showtime series of Tall Tales & Legends, featuring live-action versions of Big Men (and Women) from American folklore: Pecos Bill (Steve Guttenberg), Johnny Appleseed (Martin Short), John Henry (Danny Glover), Davy Crockett (Mac Davis), Annie Oakley (Jamie Lee Curtis).

It was dreadful.  It brought back terrible memories of childhood, when those "colorful figures from our nation's past" were pounded into my brain through incessant classroom assignments and Wonderful World of Disney episodes.

Pecos Bill rode a mountain lion instead of a horse, used a snake for a lasso, and ate dynamite for a snack.

Davy Crockett was once swallowed by a bear, so he turned it inside out and escaped.

Paul Bunyan carved out the Grand Canyon by dragging his axe in the dirt.

Mike Fink (left) was half horse, half alligator, and half snapping turtle.

Who cared?  I much preferred Tarzan, Batman and Robin, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.  For that matter, Li'l Abner and Alley Oop from the comics page.

For that matter, Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge.

And some of the tales weren't even very tall:

Casey Jones ran a railroad engine fast.

John Henry...well, he drilled a million holes in rocks, and then died.

Johnny, well, he walked around planting trees.

But, on the bright side, they weren't given many heterosexual exploits.

Pecos Bill had a girlfriend, and I just discovered that Paul Bunyan had one, but she doesn't appear in any stories that I recall.

The other Big Men were portrayed without Big Women.

And there was a a lot of beefcake.  Big Men were by definition as muscular as Superman.

You could ask your parents for a Davy Crockett action figure, and then strip him out of his clothes.

John Henry was portrayed as a hard-iron bodybuilder, as in this 8-foot tall statue in Talcott, West Virginia.

 And Paul Bunyan?  Just think about the possibilities.  If he is 30 feet tall, then he must have a three-foot long....

See also: G.I. Joe and Ken; Roadside Beefcake

That Bathhouse in West Hollywood

Last night I dreamed about that bathhouse in West Hollywood again.

We used to go there every Sunday afternoon, after church and the French Quarter.  It was on a street lined with bright, glittering shops and restaurants, always crowded with people.

You entered through a huge glass storefront and paid a squinting, suspicious elderly woman or drag queen.

After depositing your clothes in a locker, you took an elevator upstairs to a vast series of pools, some warm, some cool, all bathed in semi-twilight.  There were hundreds of men, maybe thousands, all naked or wearing towels.

There was never much sex going on, but it was warm, and safe, and I felt an amazing sense of belonging,  This was home.

Sometimes in my dreams I'm back there, at the bathhouse or gym or whatever it was, feeling that warmth and safety and belonging.

But more often I'm trying to find it.

I drive around, but the streets are unfamiliar and confusing.

I cross a vast night-dark field, knowing that it's just at the bottom of that hill, but it's too late, there's not enough time.

It's not open yet, I must come back later.

It's gone, turned into artist studios or a boys' school, and the new proprietor gets all flushed and nervous when I ask about what was there before.

The problem is: That bathhouse never existed.

There were no bathhouses in West Hollywood when I lived there.  The only such place that I have ever gone to regularly was The Club in Fort Lauderdale, which looked nothing the place in my dreams.

So what am I dreaming about?

Death and rebirth?
A screen memory for an alien abduction?
A desire to find that elemental belonging again, to go home?

See also: 15 Reasons You Should Go to a Bathhouse

Sep 26, 2014

How Do We Know that Paul Robeson was Gay?

When I was in college in the late 1970s, Paul Robeson (1898-1977) was one of my heroes.  I loved his booming, soul-rending "Old Man River" in Showboat:

I get weary, and sick of trying
Tired of living, and scared of dying
But ol' man river, he just keeps rolling along.

And his hysterical megalomaniac in Emperor Jones.

He was one of the few African-Americans who managed to break into mainstream theater and film, but during the Cold War his radical political views caused him to be blacklisted -- he called America a "fascist state," and spoke favorably about the Soviet Union.  He had to live in exile in London, and his movies and songs were censored for many years.

How cool is that?

His physique was almost as impressive as his voice, so directors had him rip off his shirt whenever possible.  In the 1920s he became the first African-American to pose nude, for photographer Nickolas Muray.

When sculptor Antonio Salemme saw a performance of The Emperor Jones, he asked Robeson to model for him, and produced several busts, as well as the nude, arms-raised "Negro Spiritual."

I always assumed that he was gay because...well, I assumed that everybody was gay.  Besides, he was friends with many of the gay figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and Paris between the Wars, and many of his film and theatrical roles involved gay subtexts.

I got my proof in 1987, when an article the Advocate mentioned that he was "recently discovered to have been gay."

In August 2014, a new biography of Paul Robeson came out, written by none other than distinguished gay scholar Martin Duberman.

Great!  I thought.  Now I'm going to hear all about Robeson's male lovers, maybe a long-term romance with Antonio Salemme or director Sergei Eisenstein, maybe cruising for hunky sailors in Paris with Jean Genet or visiting Paul Bowles in Morocco to troll for rent boys.

But Duberman found no evidence of Robeson's male lovers, not a hint of cruising for hunky sailors or trolling for rent boys. Not that Robeson had a problem with gay people; he was "wholly accepting," according to his gay friends.  But he never expressed any same-sex desire.  As a young man in Harlem, he was often approached, even offered money, but he wasn't interested.

 Instead, Duberman found a long list of women.  A very, very long list.  Robeson had a robust sexual appetite. Robust, but exclusively heterosexual.

So where did the "Robeson is gay" come from?

Author Marc Blitzstein tracked it down to a story told by gay liberation pioneer Jim Kepner.  One day in 1947, the young Kepner made a delivery to Robeson's apartment in Manhattan.  Robeson answered the door in a "lavender dressing gown," invited him in for tea, and made some cruisy eye contact as they chatted.

In 1987, he was interviewed by Stuart Timmons, who then wrote "he was recently discovered to have been gay" for his Advocate article.

That's it.  One anecdote, 40 years old, where nothing actually happened.

Robeson still might have been gay or bisexual, with super-secret liaisons, or desires that were never fulfilled.  But his very busy heterosexual sex life and his openness to friendships with gay people lead me to doubt it.

Well, at least he was an ally.

Sep 25, 2014

Cinderella: Men in Tights

Let's face it -- 90% of the reason we go to the ballet is for the beefcake -- to look at the muscular male dancers in skin-tight leotards.  10% or less is for the bonding -- gay subtexts are scarce, even when the choreographer is gay.

And Cinderella is the most heterosexist of the lot.  It's based on the most iconic of Charles Perrault's fairy tales:

1. Cinderella escapes from her horrible childhood home to a fancy dress ball, with the help of a fairy godmother and a furry-animal makeover.
2. The Handsome Prince falls in love with her.
3. She flees at midnight, before she turns into a pumpkin.
4. The Handsome Prince tries her shoe out on every woman in the kingdom, but it only fits Cinderella.

Cinderella has no female friends, only bullying stepsisters.  The Handsome Prince has no male friends, just fawning courtiers.  It's male-female pas de deux, heterosexual love! love! love! from here to eternity.

There have been about 20 ballet versions, but the most commonly performed is the 1945 version with music composed by Sergei Prokofiev.

It adds some comedic touches, such as having the stepsisters performed by men in drag (as they are in the popular British pantomimes).  In 1948, it was re-choreographed as a full-blown comedic ballet.

Still entirely heterosexist, from stem to stern.

Fortunately, costumers usually compensate by dressing the Prince in the most tightly revealing leotards they can find.

So audiences who are bored by the heterosexual love! love! love! mantra can still find something to look at.

See also: The Midsummer Night's Dream Ballets.

Sep 23, 2014

I Was Betrayed by Keanu Reeves

For Boomers, Keanu Reeves is indelibly linked with Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), a comedy about two "dumb and dumber" teenagers (Keanu, Alex Winter) on a time-travel quest to bring back some "historical dudes" for their history project.  It was wildly popular, spinning off into a sequel and a cartoon series and giving teens of the early 1990s the catchphrase "Excellent!"

But Keanu was nor really cut out to be a comedic actor; his mumbling James Dean style was more suited to quirky indy dramas with gay subtexts, such as The Brotherhood of Justice (1986), about a group of shirtless teenagers becoming vigilantes to fight crime in their gritty urban neighborhood, and Dangerous Liaisons (1988), with 18th century French aristocrats play seduction games.

He also tried his hand at action-adventure movies.  In Point Break (1991), he plays Johnny Utah, an FBI agent assigned to investigate crime in the world of professional surfers, where he bonds with surfer bum Bodhi (Patrick Swayze).  It's gay-subtext buddy-bonding at its best.

He even played a gay (sort of) character in My Own Private Idaho (1991), about hustler buddies ( the Hollywood "men who have sex with sexy women for pay" kind of hustler).  Mike (River Phoenix) is frail, sickly, and gay (does Hollywood have any other kind?)  He pines away with unrequited love for Scott (Keanu).

By this point, I assumed that Keanu was gay in real life, or at least a strong ally who would give us many open gay characters, or at least a series of gay-subtext buddy-bonds.  My friend Will claimed to have hooked up with him during the summer of 1986.

But then I was subjected to a decade of dreary "fade-out kiss" actioners and romances full of heterosexist statements like "every man is searching for the woman he was destined to be with": Speed, A Walk in the Clouds, Chain Reaction, The Matrix, The Replacements, Sweet November.

Where were the gay characters?  Where were the gay subtexts?  Where was the plain old inclusivity?

I felt betrayed, and gave up on Keanu altogether. I haven't seen any of his movies since 2001.

See also: River Phoenix: Running on Empty; Will and Scott's Wild Night with Keanu Reeves.

Summer 1974: Brother Dino in the Shower

In the summer of 1974, just after eighth grade at Washington Junior High, I went to Manville, our summer camp on the prairie, and got engaged to a girl named Sarah, because she said God gave her a Vision of My Future.  But I had a mercenary aim -- Nazarene missionaries had to be married, so only by marrying  Sarah could I escape to Saudi Arabia with my boyfriend Dan.

We were engaged for exactly three days, from Tuesday to Friday.  Then God gave me a Vision of my own.

On Friday afternoon Sarah and I walked into the woods where boys and girls went to kiss, and stumbled across a counselor necking with his girlfriend (I don't remember his name, but he looked sort of like this guy).

Suppressing giggles, we hid behind bushes and watched as he pushed his hand under her shirt and felt her boobs, what Marty called "stealing third base"on this very spot two years ago.

 It occurred to me that every Nazarene preacher, every missionary, every minister of music had pushed his hand under the shirt of his girlfriend or wife and felt her boobs.  And had sex with her.  It was a job requirement.

Sooner or later, Sarah would expect me to do that.

But it wasn't going to happen. Watching the counselor fondling his girlfriend's boobs, I knew that intimate acts with a girl were out of the question, period.

But if I didn't get married and have sex with girls, I couldn't become a missionary.  Then  how could Dan and I escape to Saudi Arabia?

I left Sarah at her afternoon crafts class and walked down the mosquito-infested pathway toward the boys' cabins.  "God, give me a Vision," I prayed.  "Tell me your Will for my life."

I stopped at the low cream-colored building called the Boys' Bath House.  It was deserted -- most boys used the bathroom in the cafeteria, or went in the woods, and only showered when forced to.  It was disgusting, stinking of urine and bleach, and there were spider webs in the toilet stalls.

But today I heard the shower running, and felt its hot, moist steam on my face.  Who would be showering in the middle of the afternoon?  I walked over and peeked beyond the yellow stone wall.

It was Brother Dino, my counselor (and back home, my Sunday School teacher).  Standing under the stream, briskly soaping his firm, hairy chest.  Rivulets of water ran over his muscular belly and down into his patch of dark pubic hair and onto his enormous penis.  I could definitely imagine stealing third base and hitting home runs with him!

Before Brother Dino could turn around and see me, I ducked behind the stone wall, did my business at a urinal, and rushed back to my cabin.

That was the vision!  I thought excitedly.  God has shown me His Will -- He wants me to be with a man!

See also: Brother Dino's Stripper Sons; Cruising Religious Boys; and 34 Reasons to Like Summer

The Arab Boy at Music Camp

Guy on the right looks like Todd
Although Dan and I would not be escaping to Arabia after all, my interest in the Middle East remained strong when I started at Rocky High in the fall of 1975, so I was delighted to meet a real Arab!  A sophomore violinist named Todd.

He was actually half Arab – his mother’s parents were from Lebanon – and Christian, not Muslim.  He didn’t know any Arabic except salaam (“hello”) and tayta (“grandma”). But still, he had roots in the "good place" where same-sex loves were free and open!  And he was beautiful, small and compact in a green turtleneck with flawless olive skin and dark shining eyes.  Unfortunately, he had been engaged since the fifth grade to a girl named Faith, and now they were attached whenever possible by hand or hip or mouth. You couldn’t address a question to one without both answering.

Maybe I was just rebounding from Dan, but I couldn't take my eyes off Todd. Even the air around him and his tan desk etched with graffiti seemed vivid and alive.  One lunch hour I lost twelve consecutive games of chess, unable to strategize or think of defense because Todd was sitting next to me. I wanted. . .I wasn’t sure what, but the desire burned hot and raw and panting. I churned the covers off my bed at night, restless, unable to sleep.

If you asked God to do anything in Jesus' name, He was honor-bound to do it.  My friend Rita used God's Infallible Promise to "get" Donny Osmond as a husband.  So one cool Sunday in November 1975, after the evening service, I walked out into the alley behind the church, looked up at the stars,  and asked God in Jesus' name to give me Todd.

 It took months, but eventually God kept His Infallible Promise and delivered Todd.  Or at least we were both selected, alone out of the entire orchestra, to go to the prestigious Dorian Music Festival. An entire week with Todd all to myself!

Luther College
The festival was held in June 1976, a few weeks before our Nazarene church camp,  at Luther College, on the bluffs of the Mississippi. Though Todd was only cautiously cordial at Rocky High, at the Festival he clung to me as a familiar face. On Thursday  we skipped afternoon rehearsal to explore the town.  We visited a rock cavern and then bought blueberry muffins at a bakery festooned with red and green streamers.

We even went to a movie, my first since I started becoming a "Johnny Nazarene."  I put my arm against the center arm rest, as Dan used to do.  I moved closer and closer to the hard curve of Todd’s body until I could feel the fibers of cotton in his shirt and smell Dial soap and, very faintly, his own scent of vineyards and bleached stone, but I dared not move that tantalizing quarter inch that defined the difference between a casual and a willful touch.

On Saturday night, after the Grand Concert, it was hot in our room, so Todd took off his undershirt, and I noticed a thin gold chain around his neck. When Todd climbed into bed and pulled the covers up to his chest, it stood out against his brown skin, gleaming like a fiery ring. On the front, against his collarbone, lay a small plate with what looked like a portrait of a man.

“Is that a surfing symbol?” I asked, stupidly.

“No,” Todd said in a dim lazy voice. “It’s a scapular. . .like a medal.”

“Oh. . .what did you win?”

Boy with scapular

“No, it’s a religious symbol.” He carefully pulled the plate up from his chest. “See, the Sacred Heart on one side, Mary Mother of God on the other.”

With a shudder I realized that Todd was talking about being a Catholic. “I thought you were a Christian!”

“I am,” Todd said defensively. “Maronite Catholic.  But I go to St. Pius."

Nazarene preachers told us to never go near a Catholic church, or we would be dragged inside to an unspeakable fate, and never talk to a Catholic, or we would be brainwashed into worshipping idols and drinking blood.

I chided himself for my irrational fear.  I had been friends with Frank, a Catholic boy, for two years!  Catholics weren't monsters and demons. Sometimes they were perfectly nice.

And what else had I heard about Catholics: "They have no morals, they're up for anything. If you want a good time, call a Catholic."

I stared at the scapular, and at Todd’s neck, golden in the brash light of our dorm lamp, with two moles close together on the left side like a vampire bite.

Finally I said, “I’ve never. . .seen a scapular before.  Can I touch it?”

“Sure.” But instead of taking it off, Todd motioned for me to come closer.

St. Pius Church, Rock Island
I got up, wearing only cotton briefs, and sat on Todd’s  bed.  Todd’s body was hot, and soft yet firm. I touched the scapular. Then slowly I moved my hand down and stroked Todd's chest.  He moaned and closed his eyes.

After some other things happened, Todd refused to kiss or cuddle, so I returned to my own bed.

When I awoke, Todd was already gone.  I dressed quickly and wandered around the campus for a long time, looking for him, but I didn't see him again.  After breakfast Dad arrived to drive me home.

Back at school, Todd returned to being cautiously polite, nodding hello as we passed in the hallway but refusing all attempts to talk. Sometimes I saw him across the cafeteria, laughing with his Crowd, cozying up to Faith. Sometimes the sunlight glinted off his scapular, which he was now wearing on the outside of his shirt.

It seemed that some boys liked boys only at night.  You could see them, and touch them, but in the morning they would become cool and aloof, brushing past you as they searched for girls.

The uncensored story is on Tales of West Hollywood.

Sep 22, 2014

Kon-Tiki: 6 Guys on a Boat

Boys growing up in the 1960s were encouraged to read High Adventure, tales of exploration and conquest: Robert Peary's expedition to the North Pole; Roald Amundsen's expedition to the South Pole; Edmund Hilary's ascent of Mount Everest; Stanley Livingston's trek into Darkest Africa.  

All of this was somehow supposed to prepare us for a future confined to small square offices by day and small square houses by night.

The only tale of High Adventure that I actually liked was Kon-Tiki, about Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's quest to prove that Polynesia was settled by the early Incas -- or could have been.

So he and five companions built a raft of balsa wood, the only material available to the native peoples, and set out from Callao, Peru on April 28, 1947.  Four months and 4,000 miles later, they ran aground on Raroia, near Tahiti.  To international acclaim.

Who cares that contemporary anthropology disputed his theory?  He had been on a High Adventure.  Every boy I knew read the book, named his toy boat Kon-Tiki, and planned extravagant sailing adventures.  Mine started down the Mississippi, across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida, and then followed the Gulf Stream to Europe.

I especially liked reading about six guys together on a small raft, their bodies nude and bronze in the sun, helping each other, rescuing each other, learning to care for each other.

Many more recent expeditions have attempted to recreate the journey, such as the Tangaroa in 2006, with Heyerdahl's grandson Olaf in the crew.

Naturally, the 2012 movie turns the journey into a hetero-romance.   But the original book either omits discussions of wives and children, or I skipped over that part. This was an all-male adventure, like Donald Duck and his nephews seeking out the Seven Cities of Cibola.

See also: Donald Duck's Double Life.

Sep 21, 2014

Robert Allerton and his Boyfriend/Son

Gay men in earlier generations devised all sorts of clever ways to be with their partners without arousing suspicion.  They became valets, secretaries, business partners, brothers-in-law.

But Robert Allerton is unique.  He made his boyfriend his son.

Born into luxury in 1873, son of the founder of the First National Bank of Chicago, Robert Allerton rejected the usual route of private school, Ivy League college, and tycoon career.  Instead, after he graduated from prep school, he bummed around Europe, collecting art.

In 1897 he bought a farm near Urbana, Illinois, and turned it into a series of ornate gardens, stocked with neoclassical statues and Asian art.

In 1922, at age 50, he met the 23-year old John Gregg, an aspiring architect who everyone called Jack.

There were some gay rumors, but in that far more heterosexist era, it was more commonly assumed that Jack was merely the protege of the older man.  Besides, they often took girls to public events.

Otherwise they lived happily together for thirty years.  They spent summers in Illinois, and traveled during the winters.  One year they'd go "Europewise," and the next "Orientwise."

They got some decidedly homoerotic work from their friends in the gay art world, such as Primitive Men from Glyn Philpott and The Sun Singer from Carl Milles. They are now visible at the Robert Allerton Park, which is open to the public.

Robert and Jack  were a common sight at parties, benefits, concerts, and nightclubs.  Their Thanksgiving Parties were legendary.

They had a wide circle of friends, including Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson.

They endowed the Robert Allerton Park, the Allerton Gardens in Hawaii, the Honolulu Academy of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

But Robert was getting older.  What to do about inheriting his fortune?  In the eyes of the law, they were strangers.  Robert could merely amend his will to give Jack everything, but then relatives would protest, and there would be endless legal battles.

He came up with a clever solution.  In 1951, when Robert was 77, he legally adopted 52-year old Jack.  When he died five years later, his "son" automatically inherited everything.

Jeff MacKay

The problem with meeting celebrities is that you usually don't recognize them, and then their feelings get hurt.

I never saw Black Sheep Squadron, Tales of the Gold Monkey, Magnum PI, or The Transformers, so how did I know that the guy I met was a celebrity.  I didn't even know that he was an actor, although it's a safe bet in West Hollywood

He was living in Hollywood, a few blocks from Mann's Chinese (and near where the Gay Community Center is today).

He told me that he was born in Dallas but grew up in Oklahoma City, and....

That's all I knew about him, except he had a nice smile, a husky, hirsute physique, and his name was "Jeff."

Later he revealed that he was Jeff MacKay, the actor.  I pretended to know who he was, but really I didn't.

After that night I never saw him again.

He died in 2008 after a long struggle with alcoholism, leaving many family members and friends with fond memories of his kindness and good humor.

I'm sorry I didn't get to know him better.

See also: Guess which celebrity I've dated.