Queens of the Desert



I never thought of them as sinless saints, but as flawed ones, and fabulously so. Palm Springs'style saints: one in silver mink, counting the minutes until 4:45 (time for martinis!); another regaling me with stories of past lovers roped and handcuffed in the hothouse of 1970s West Hollywood, Calif.; and all those gathered one Monday night at the Rainbow Cactus as Bijoux Perez sang 'You Made Me Love You' with Rudy de la Mor on piano ('He wears the most fabulous hats,' whispered one wrinkled blond) and his best friend of 60 years, Robert Riera, sang along. When a ruby ring went flying off Bruce's strong, liver-spotted, hairdresser's middle finger and tumbled across the carpet to my feet, I feel as if I'd found a trove of long-lost relatives, a whole family line I never knew I had.

These nights are not without sadness. After one old queen downed his fifth cocktail and I ask how he is, he answers, with unfocussed eyes, 'Fine. I would be better if I was swapping spit with you. But I am fine.'

Then again, who ever said that every show tune has a silver lining?

If you want an old gay guy to laugh in your face, ask if he thinks it's easier coming out today than it was when he was young.

'When you're confused and trying to figure yourself out, you can go online and meet people without ever leaving your living room,' Daddy Zeus says with a chuckle. The 68-year-old with a big belly and a round, expectant face holds a little dog in his lap on the patio of the ranch-style house he calls 'Twisted Palms.'

Daddy Zeus had a bit further to go to figure himself out. Born Mikal Bales in Pomona, Calif., he joined the Air Force after high school because he wanted to see the world. But his hoped-for grand tour began and ended at the base in Great Falls, Mont. So in 1968 he joined the Peace Corps and left for Nigeria. The only white man in the village where he worked for two years, he was befriended by the son of the chief, the greatest warrior in the tribe, and the two were made blood brothers in a ceremony involving drums, magic plants, and a cut that left a still visible -inch scar on his left thumb. From then on Mikal slept every night with his blood brother, naked and spooning. That's how Mikal figured out he's gay.

Forced by the civil war to leave Nigeria, Mikal returned to Los Angeles and became a publicist. His first day on the job, the boss said, 'Since you're gay I'm going to put you with the girls so you can talk hemlines and hairdos. Go down to Rodeo and learn every handbag and perfume they got, and these women will love you forever.' He did, and they did: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Doris Day, Elizabeth Taylor.

In his off hours Mikal became increasingly frustrated by his inability to find pictures of muscular men tied up with ropes'his favorite erotic scenario from the time he started reading superhero comics as a boy'so in 1975 he borrowed $2,000 from his father and enlisted a friend to help him start a company. Zeus Studios began with two guys making a mimeographed magazine the size of the old TV Guide. By the time Daddy Zeus retired in 2001 to Cathedral City, near Palm Springs, he had built one of the biggest gay porn companies in the world.

Of all the stories Daddy Zeus tells, the one that seems to stir up the deepest emotions is the day he was invited to go swimming with the men in his Nigerian village. It was a great honor to be invited, he says, the first sign that they were truly accepting him, and so it triggered the natural response: a wardrobe crisis. Which swimsuit does one wear the day he joins the Yoruba inner circle?

He made his decision. He arrived at the swimming hole. And everybody laughed at him.

'They'd obviously never seen a Speedo before, and they thought it was ridiculous,' Daddy Zeus recounts. 'Why would anyone wear a piece of clothing just to get it wet? Why would anyone put clothing on to go in the water?

'You know, we fret and stew over stuff, and we call it modesty. But you have to ask, in so many situations, why would you cover yourself? Why are you covering? Their approach was so pure and so innocent that it just knocked me upside the head. I said to myself, You're right. Why am I standing here defending a standard that makes no sense? So I took off that Speedo, and I threw it into the water. They started playing tug-of-war with it,' he laughs. 'That was one of the most freeing moments of my life.'

The most consistently astonishing thing about the old queens of Palm Springs, the accomplishment that makes the greatest claim on our respect, is that they threw away their Speedos.

Try to remember the moment when you felt your loneliest, the moment after you realized that integrity demanded that you create a new life for yourself, the moment before you knew what that new life would be. Now multiply your loneliness and uncertainty by orders of magnitude, and you have some inkling of the distance these men have traveled in their lives.

'I didn't know what to do,' says Stefan Hemming, remembering his adolescence in 1940s Sweden. 'I went to the library, and I read that in the American Civil War some soldiers who had not been with women liked to be with young men who did not have hair yet. I mean, I had hair on my arms and legs, and, well, gee, it took me forever to wax it off.' Chortling, he leans forward, confiding, 'With a candle, in the basement of my parents' house. With my mother calling downstairs, 'Darling, what are you doing?' I was so confused. I didn't know what you were supposed to be.'

Stefan lives behind a high wall whose green front gate is guarded by an eight-foot candelabrum. His passionately overdecorated home -- suits of armor, crystal chandeliers, bathrooms with flocked wallpaper, a toilet built to look like a throne -- was previously owned by Liberace. (Another member of the Palm Springs set, Jerome Yerich, lives in the house once owned by Kate Smith, America's World War II patriotic songstress.) Hemming, a former model, female impersonator, and San Francisco real estate magnate, is descended from 'the oldest titled family in Sweden,' from whom he inherited a fierce survival instinct. After working several passages on the S.S. Stockholm as a teenager, he decided to head to the United States on a different ship. On its next passage the Stockholm struck and sank the Andrea Doria.