Queens of the Desert



In the United States, Stefan embarked on a picaresque cross-country adventure full of equally close brushes with doom. He's conscious of being a lucky man without seeming guilty or proud over it. 'So much of life is where you happen to be, who you happen to meet,' he says. 'You don't know why.'

Stefan's uncanny resemblance to Liberace (with whom, he coyly suggested, he had a brief affair; at least one of Liberace's biographies insinuates as much without identifying Stefan by name) is captured and exaggerated by numerous portraits that hang in the corridors of the endless expanse of his house. Though uncharacteristically taciturn when asked to explain his admiration for Liberace, one hint may be found on a poster of the pianist that hangs by his bar (opposite a framed spangled jockstrap that once belonged to Liberace), bearing the entertainer's most famous aphorism: 'Nobody will believe in you unless you believe in yourself.'

I ask Stefan, as I asked all the men I met in Palm Springs, to tell me about the love of his life. A heavy sigh. A sip of vodka. 'The night we met he wore a brown jumpsuit. I wore a dusty-rose jumpsuit,' his story begins, as Sinatra crooned 'Come Fly With Me' on the stereo. They were together for three years, and, as seems to be true of almost every friend Stefan has ever made, they are still close.

Is he still in love with the man?

'Yes. No. Yes,' Stefan says tiredly, as if the question were irrelevant. 'You fall in love. You always move on. I always stay involved. I don't want to waste any part of my past.'

The world of wall-to-wall Auntie Mames does have a dark side, and it looks dismayingly like Sunset Boulevard's deluded antiheroine, Norma Desmond. There came a time in the desert when I grew disenchanted. Some men who at first looked like exemplars grew to seem like mere eccentrics riddled with self-deception and self-contradiction. Too many conversations, sooner or later, took a turn that went something like this:

'You had the same relationship, your lovers kept hurting you, over and over, your whole life. Why was that?'

'I don't know.'

'Well, what's your best guess?'

Suffering, even studded with diamonds, is still suffering. Pain is always pain. At their best this generation of gay men turned the pain of isolation into a fabulous show of strength and a singular talent for friendship. In the process, many seem to have devoted little of their formidable creative energy to probing analysis of their own shortcomings, or to the project of finding lasting romantic love. Only on my last visit to the desert did I begin to appreciate that my silent criticisms of them were unfair.

The man who best helped me to understand that was Bruce Crawford. The 80-year-old doesn't look a day over 60, and he usually dates men 50 years his junior. He won $12 million in the lottery a few years ago, and he lives in a tricked-out prefab home with fancy track lighting above the gang shower in his bathroom and fine Asian art hanging on the walls.

I ask Bruce what he sees as the biggest difference between the way gay men of his generation treated one another and the way we treat each other today. 'I think we were more tolerant -- no, more considerate of one another,' he says, a mind set he summarizes this way: 'I know what I've gone through, and I'm sure that somebody else has gone through much worse than me. You can't just say, 'That dizzy, silly queen doesn't know her ass from a hole in the ground.' We don't know what that dizzy queen went through.'

Old queens did not have the option of coming out in a gay world. They began their lives more isolated from one another, and more isolated from any notion of a gay identity, than we did. They had to fight harder to find themselves they respected one another more for having done it, and so they created a culture like the one I found in Palm Springs -- one built on delight in their own and one another's strangeness.

My generation of gay men didn't have to fight as hard to come out as the old queens did, which gives us an opportunity that many of them didn't have: the chance to arrive at an arguably fuller, and maybe more authentic, self-awareness. But the cost of today's wired, convenience-oriented, consumerist gay culture, the cost of living in a world of seemingly infinite social options, the cost of being able to come home from the bar, log on to the Internet, and find another man to sleep with, has been the near-extinction of inconvenient empathy. What if we could find a way to bear with one another the way the old queens have? What if we could find a way to gain their discipline for respecting each other's dignity, and our own?

One afternoon at Stefan's house, Daddy Zeus, Bruce Crawford, Bijoux, Robert Riera, and a couple of dozen others were gathered around the piano singing. I had invited a few younger guys I'd met in the desert to drop by, including one muscular marine from the nearby base at Twentynine Palms. His sculpted body so raised the party's collective blood pressure that the older men couldn't help themselves: They asked the marine to show them his tattoos, and he gladly obliged. On one arm, the man's triceps crowed Self. On the other, the same muscles blared Made.

At this there was a slight but unmistakable shift in the crowd's energy. Pretty soon the younger men left, and as soon as the door closed behind them the piano player sniffed, 'Self? Made? Like nobody ever helped him with anything?'

The group made sounds of assent, the piano player started up again, and everybody sang.