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Queens of the Desert

We always love it when our writers rain glory on us, so a very hearty congratulations to Out magazine contributing writer Michael Joseph Gross who won first and second place in the feature writing category of this year's National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association Excellence in Journalism Awards. The following piece, which won first place, originally ran in the April 2007 issue of the magazine. We've reprinted it here in case you missed it the first time around. On the crucifix worn by Empress I Jose, the Widow Norton -- squat, regal, 83 years old, and known out of drag as Jose Sarria -- Christs hands and feet are studded with diamonds. Maybe you havent heard of Jose. In 1961, eight years before Stonewall, he became the first openly gay man in the United States to run for public office, losing his race for San Francisco city supervisor. Three years later he founded the Imperial Court System, a campy grassroots charity group thats still going strong and has spawned more than 50 chapters around North America. As a female impersonator Jose headlined San Franciscos Black Cat Caf from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, during which time he was a one-man foil to the citys vice squad. When plainclothes officers entered the bar he welcomed them with a round of applause. On Halloween he passed out I Am a Boy labels to men in drag so that police wouldnt be able to arrest them for intent to deceive. To the tune of My Country, Tis of Thee Jose sang, God Save Us, Nelly Queens. Back for a moment to Jesus -- or, really, to his diamonds. Three carats! This was given to me by a lovely gangster from Providence, Jose chatters, smoothing the front of his red silk gown while being groomed for a banquet by Bruce Crawford, a.k.a. Sheila, his 80-year-old lady-in-waiting. (Sheila looks like Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? but vastly more terrifying because marginally more self-aware.) When I ask what size his dress was, Jose frowns. Size 20, he says. But I used to be a 12. Seeming to struggle inwardly, looking at the wall, he adds, Or a 14. I went to the desert to visit the queens: gay men in their late 60s, 70s, and 80s, older than gay liberation, now spending their retirement years in Palm Springs, Calif. They grew up in an age when coming out involved inevitable risk, when if you touched a mans knee in a bar, you were liable to end up under arrest. Jose often refers to himself and his peers as old queens, one of many names theyve been called in their day. I wanted to try calling them a different name, though. I wondered if they might be saints. On meeting these men it seemed Id discovered a world of wall-to-wall Auntie Mames: glamorous, funny, inspiring, and bold. For gay men, I thought, these old queens might be examples, as saints are to Catholics, of how to be more fully human, how to live with true grace. Talking about them with a man from the next generation, Cleve Jones, who founded the AIDS Memorial Quilt (and who at age 53 practically ranks as chicken in Palm Springs), I ask what one quality his gay forefathers had in common. Dignity, he answers, dignity rooted in an experience that is hard for anyone under 40 to understand. When they came out, he says, those queens knew that they were participating in something that had never happened before. You didnt have to be smart, you didnt have to be educated, you didnt have to be political to know that you were experiencing something that was brand-new. And they did manage to accomplish quite a bit, even in the face of overwhelming persecution. You have to give them that: They have courage. I never thought of them as sinless saints, but as flawed ones, and fabulously so. Palm Springsstyle 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 Bruces strong, liver-spotted, hairdressers middle finger and tumbled across the carpet to my feet, I feel as if Id 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 its easier coming out today than it was when he was young. When youre 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. Thats how Mikal figured out hes 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 youre gay Im 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 ropeshis favorite erotic scenario from the time he started reading superhero comics as a boyso 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. Theyd 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, Youre 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 didnt 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 didnt 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, Americas 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. In the United States, Stefan embarked on a picaresque cross-country adventure full of equally close brushes with doom. Hes 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 dont know why. Stefans uncanny resemblance to Liberace (with whom, he coyly suggested, he had a brief affair; at least one of Liberaces 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 entertainers 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 dont 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 Boulevards 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 dont know. Well, whats 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 doesnt 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 Ive gone through, and Im sure that somebody else has gone through much worse than me. You cant just say, That dizzy, silly queen doesnt know her ass from a hole in the ground. We dont 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 anothers strangeness. My generation of gay men didnt have to fight as hard to come out as the old queens did, which gives us an opportunity that many of them didnt have: the chance to arrive at an arguably fuller, and maybe more authentic, self-awareness. But the cost of todays 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 others dignity, and our own? One afternoon at Stefans 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 Id met in the desert to drop by, including one muscular marine from the nearby base at Twentynine Palms. His sculpted body so raised the partys collective blood pressure that the older men couldnt help themselves: They asked the marine to show them his tattoos, and he gladly obliged. On one arm, the mans triceps crowed Self. On the other, the same muscles blared Made. At this there was a slight but unmistakable shift in the crowds 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.
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