79. The Cockettes

2.16.2010

By Guy Trebay


Crazy as it seems to suggest that a ragtag bunch of acid-head hippie queens affected the course of American culture, there's reason to believe it is true. For a mere three years, from 1969 to 1972, the Cockettes blazed across the newly formed media-sphere. Nearly four decades later, the glitter they left in their wake drifts down from the upper stratosphere.

Created out of disparate fragments -- 1960s utopian communalism, nascent gay activism, drug-addled polymorphous perversity, and a seemingly bedrock dedication to the gospel of Broadway show tunes -- the San Francisco theatrical troupe appeared out of nowhere and, for a brief but enduring instant, gave proof to the notion that while we are all born naked, everything after that is drag.

Nowadays, of course, everyone takes for granted Pete Wentz's eyeliner, Devendra Banhart's straight-boy sissy presentation, the baroque pop travesty that is Lady Gaga. Yet these personages owe a debt to a largely unsung lineage that basically dates to the days when a would-be actor called George Harris Jr. transformed himself into a street-divinity rebaptized (in an LSD ceremony) as Hibiscus.

Living on welfare and food stamps (a system John Waters referred to as 'government grants to the arts'), the Cockettes were a group of societal outcasts who shacked up in a Haight-Ashbury group house and who spontaneously started to put on performances. Each Saturday night before the midnight Nocturnal Dream Show of vintage films at the Palace Theater in North Beach, they mounted extravaganzas loosely inspired by Hollywood films of the 1930s as filtered through the druggy politics of the moment and the momentous politics of the Vietnam era. Bearded, painted, breasts and penises flopping through the antique frocks that were easy to come by in the thrift shops of the era, the Cockettes conjured up a Dionysiac theater composed of equal parts hokum, cultural critique, and pure gender blur.

Were they men or were they women? Were they men who wanted to be women or women who longed to be men? Were they straight or gay or dupes of a doped-up gay cabal? Was it possible, as the Cockettes suggested -- in ways that the wide-open mainstream press of the day was happy to publicize -- that all of us, given the right drugs and the right opportunity, would shrug off the bonds of gender performance, sexual preference, and a controlling political apparatus to live without boundaries, happily fucking and loving across the full Kinsey scale?

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