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In Praise of Nelly Queens: Let’s Stop Being Ashamed of Our Femme Side

Kathi Littwin

I’m not exactly Liberace, but I’m a somewhat effeminate man and I’ve always been protective of that trait. It’s who I am, and I bristle whenever I’m told to tone it down, whether by dear friends or hateful foes. I vividly remember hanging out with a straight male friend in my native Brooklyn when I was a teen and having him urge me to keep my hands on my sides as I walked, because swishing them around could peg you as a queer. Alas, that type of thinking didn’t exactly go away as savviness and sensitivity about gay issues grew through the years. In the early 1990s, a publicist had booked me on a pre-taped TV segment about club life, and when they were shooting me for background footage, he barked at me: “Do that again! You’re walking too faggy!” (I resolutely refused, so stunned that I could barely move. Adding to my horror was the fact that the publicist was gay.)

The truth is that not only do some straight people have a problem with gay effeminacy, but the community itself does, acting embarrassed by guys who are “too gay” and are downright unapologetic about it. From the beginning, we learn to dial it down a notch so we won’t get found out or bullied, though some gays don’t bother doing so, and that makes everyone else uncomfortable, as if these guys somehow have no good sense or self control. Now that we have marriage in 50 states, it seems as if the flaming gay mortifies the assimilationist gays more than ever, since some of the latter group aim to blend in without a trace of spark or difference. But effeminate gays are more than just remnants from the era when campy comic actors like Paul Lynde and Charles Nelson Reilly could signal their gayness without saying it. It’s a reminder of the diversity of our community, and the fact that coming out should involve a complete announcement of yourself to the world, which should respond with a giant “Welcome.”

This issue cropped up in March when Looking star Russell Tovey told the Guardian that he’s glad his dad didn’t let him go to drama school because “I feel like I could have been really effeminate if I hadn’t gone to the school I went to….where I felt like I had to toughen up. If I’d have been able to relax, prance around, sing in the street, I might be a different person now.” Tovey was perhaps reflecting other people’s distaste for flaming gays, stating that he’s been able to get cast in both straight and gay roles because he comes off relatively butch. But he didn’t acknowledge several other factors, like the fact that actors are paid to act and can inhabit all sorts of characters, no matter what they’re like offscreen. If that weren’t the case, then Meryl Streep would get very little work.

On hearing Tovey’s remarks, comic/actor Alec Mapa blew a gay gasket. Responded Mapa on social networks: “He’s glad he’s not effeminate? Well, the feeling is mutual, lady. I’m glad I’m not you. Being an effeminate gay man still remains an unforgivable sin in our masculinity obsessed culture,” Mapa went on. “I think about all the young sissy boys who return from school after being bullied and shamed day after day, perhaps returning home to the same treatment. I know because I was one of those kids. Was? I still am! I still get it in the neck for being who I am.

“There are a billion reasons to feel actual shame and remorse,” he concluded. “Being your authentic, fabulous, faggy self shouldn’t be one of them.” And at last, it was a sissy boy fighting back at his oppressor, who this time happened to also be gay.

The revulsion over effeminacy is nothing new. Many guys who troll sex apps and sites have long complained about how deeply the strain of self loathing can run, as guys unwittingly bully their fellow gays for not putting on enough of a macho pose. The most prevalent expression on all these venues is a preference for someone “straight acting,” which always begs the question: Why would you want someone who’s acting anything? “No fats, no femmes” is the other iteration of this awful craving, but at least “fats” have gotten appreciation via the continuing rise in bear worship. Femmes have yet to get the respect they deserve.

Flamboyant New York club promoter/photographer Kenny Kenny recently told me he feels that the “sissies” are the forgotten element of the LGBT community when it comes to protection and admiration. “I’m glad gays and transsexuals have gotten more rights,” said Kenny, “but what about the nelly queens? What about our right to walk down the street without someone saying, ‘Why do they act like that?’ ”

Fascinatingly, it’s not just nellies who we’ve bashed from within—we’ve also sought to subvert gay parents and gay marriage in general. Gay self-loathing is obviously in the air this year, as evidenced by the ridiculous statement from gay designers Dolce and Gabbana that same sex couples shouldn’t create or raise children because “The only family is the traditional one.” (Dolce later apologized.) And in April, gay entrepreneur Ian Reisner and his partner, Mati Weiderpass, hosted an event for rabidly anti-gay-marriage Senator Ted Cruz, and were stunned by the furious response from gays who felt betrayed—though that hardly stopped Reisner from reportedly doing a similar thing with another phobic politician. Maybe we are so used to being kicked in the mud and spit upon that sometimes, as a pre-emptive strike, we do it to ourselves. Perhaps we’ve been conditioned by society to be our own worst enemies and try to keep ourselves down, not feeling we deserve the equality we’re fighting for during saner moments.

Fortunately, there’s room for an awakening or two. David Thorpe’s documentary Do I Sound Gay?, which opened in July, explored the director’s attempt to change his supposedly gay way of talking (nasal, with long vowels), until realizing it’s part of who he is and he should basically just accept that. I could have told him that at the beginning of the film and saved him the trouble. Project Runway star Tim Gunn probably could have, too. In the movie, Gunn says that he used to be appalled by the sound of his own voice, but not anymore. Explains Gunn: “If people hear my voice and identify me as gay, today I’ll say thank you. I’m proud of it. Thank you.”

stonewall

WHITE MEN CAN JUMPSTART A REVOLUTION

Speaking of our community being weird to itself: I saw just Stonewall and was amazed to find out that it was a fictional white guy—a real cutie, by the way—who started the whole legendary revolt while wrinkling his pretty brow and yelling: “Gay power!" How perfect for a movie whose most repeated soundtrack song is “A Whiter Shade of Pale!" Gosh, you learn something every day—like how our history can be twisted to sell a hokey plotline (albeit with some good scenes and ambience and wrapped in a welcome message about gays battling oppression).

The lead character’s throughline doesn’t ring true as he transforms from deer in the headlights to rabble-rousing activist, which results in the riot scenes failing to make an impact since you’re not fully invested in the people by that point. In fact, the screening crowd tittered in the subsequent scene, where cute Danny tells a pal, “I’m too mad to love anyone right now!” After the screening, SiriusXM host Michelangelo Signorile suggested that the film might come off better if they didn’t even say it had anything to do with Stonewall. “True,” I replied. “It should be called Monster Bar or Pieces!” Or maybe they should have saved their money and instead shopped the true story of Stonewall regulars Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, and Titus Montalvo to HBO.

Bartsch

Susanne in a corset by The Blonds, circa 2013. Photo by Marco Ovando.

FASHION, FILMS, AND FROLICS

All the flamboyant queens came out for the gala opening of Susanne Bartsch’s exhibit show at FIT, which showcases the queen of the night’s luscious, exotically thrilling outfits through the years, encapsulating decades of invention and spirit. Bartsch has always defied the trends of nightlife and continued her conga line of self-created zanies dressed like space aliens and angling for a hot time. At the bash, I asked RuPaul what the secret of Susanne’s genius is. “Poppers!” he exclaimed, wryly. Zaldy, who’s designed so many exquisite ensembles for her, had a longer answer: “She’s so glamorous. I was doing a fitting with her and she said, ‘Oh my God, I need a fish stick!’ So she promptly pulled a fish stick out of the oven. She’s at a certain level, but won’t change. She’s that girl. She’s genius.”

There was nothing fishy at the show for the glam design duo the Blonds, which is always so sceney that before the presentation even starts, there’s tons of entertainment, with photo ops growing like a crinoline ball every time a new scene queen enters the room. Last week, after everyone finally sat down, in walked Bette Midler, looking happy and chatty. (The Blonds cooked up a few looks for her most recent tour. The Divine Miss M looked great in blue beads and pink feathers.) The Egyptian disco-themed show trotted out models in encrusted metallic regalias and pom-pom hairdos that looked like Swiffer versions of Princess Leia. You certainly can’t say, “It’s been done.” 

King Tut via Warhol, artist/designer Scooter LaForge had a happening opening at Jane Friedman’s Howl! Gallery in the East Village for his sprawling and colorful How To Create A Monsterpiece show. LaForge combs urban detritus to create collages that mix trash, classical references, and fantasy in ways that seduce and alarm. Do I sound like I’ve been possessed by an art critic? Well, good, because I wrote an essay for Scooter’s catalogue!

I’m a cineaste too, so I’ve been soaking in the New York Festival’s array of docs, biopics, and foreign flicks aimed at the heady film lover in you. The other day, I caught Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow’s De Palma, which has Brian De Palma—and only him—talking about his life as a renegade auteur carrying on Hitchcockian traditions, with sometimes grisly twists (especially between takes, lol). Among the gossip he relates:

*While making Obsession, Cliff Robertson realized Genevieve Bujold was walking away with the film, so he tried to sabotage her by giving her flat line readings and bad lines of vision. Also, Robertson was supposed to look pale and dissipated, but he insisted on being so bronzed his face matched the orange walls.

*Similarly, on Casualties of War, Sean Penn tried to throw off Michael J. Fox by not speaking to him, and by doing one take where he nastily whispered “television actor” into Fox’s ear. Penn did it for a reason, though—to foster antagonism between their characters—but he may have gone too far when he pushed Fox really hard in one scene. Movie actors!

*When Michael Caine (in full transsexual attire) slashes Angie Dickinson in the 1980 thriller Dressed To Kill, it’s actually Caine’s body double doing it, since De Palma felt you wouldn’t see the actor clearly anyway. (Alas, you can indeed see through the haze that the person doesn’t look like Caine at all.) But Caine loved dressing for the part, says De Palma; “It was a wonderful joke for him.” Let me add that at the time, the LGBT community didn’t find the idea of a trans killer so funny. And though Caine went on to kiss Christopher Reeve in Deathtrap just two years later, they played schemer/killers, so that wasn’t exactly a cause for gay parades either. But what do I know? I’m just a nelly queen!

Brian Stokes Mitchell

Photo by Michael Wilhoite

BRIAN STOKES MITCHELL CROONS “THE MAN I LOVE”

Dressed to thrill, Brian Stokes Mitchell has scored on Broadway in Ragtime, Kiss Me Kate (Tony award), and Man of La Mancha, also gaining acclaim for a dramatic turn in August Wilson’s King Hedley II. Last week, he swooped into the Café Carlyle for a two-week run full of his dreamy vocals and genial presence. Rather than serve up a succession of his greatest hits, the classic leading man dabbled in standards, Broadway, and some oddball discoveries and lovely experimentations, putting a personal stamp on the evening while continually soaring with his voice.

Opening with a jazzily syncopated “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Stokes went on to a deeply felt version of “The Man I Love” complete with his stylings on a mouth organ. Relax—the guy wasn’t trying to tell us anything. He’s been married to a woman for over 20 years and even admitted that someone gave him advice on how to stay married even longer: “Don’t get divorced.” It’s just that Stokes had appeared in an event called Broadway Backwards, where men sing songs written for women and vice versa, so that’s when he developed an affinity for the Gershwin torcher. And this night, he followed that with Sondheim’s breathless romp “Getting Married Today,” in which he played the bride, the groom, and a blustery male wedding singer, all caving in to matrimonial jitters. The guy’s a treat, and I look forward to seeing him in his next Broadway musical—Shuffle Along. He’s one of the few people who could manage to get noticed next to Audra McDonald

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