Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Nicotine Madness

"Good night, folks. [James Arness, in suit and tie, reaches inside his jacket, pulls out a pack of cigarettes.] See you next week in Dodge City. [He puts a cigarette between his lips.] In the meantime, [he lights the cigarette with a cigarette lighter], light up, free up. Get the most out of life. [He holds up the pack to the camera.] Live modern, smoke L & M."--from the closing commercial of an episode of Gunsmoke (circa 1956).

In the 1950s, smoking, via television, movies, and print advertising, was depicted as hip, sophisticated, and sexy. Today smokers are treated like pariahs, made to stand outside stores, restaurants, and office buildings to satisfy their daily nicotine addiction. Not so back then.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Gay Women Or Lesbians?

Dear Editor: Re: [African-American] WNBA [basketball] player Sheryl Swoopes ("Battle of the Same Sex," New York Daily News, October 30, 2005).

I am irked by the press using the term "gay women athletes." "Gay" and "lesbian" are not interchangeable labels. One term identifies male homosexuals and the other identifies female homosexuals. And unless Swoopes is doing a Victor/Victoria act in her spare time, the distinction should be maintained.

Sincerely yours,

Charles Michael Smith

Note: This letter, written as a handwritten draft on October 30, 2005, was never sent to the New York Daily News.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Assotto Saint, The Impossible Black Homosexual

My favorite Assotto Saint story is the one where he boldly marches up to the pulpit at poet Donald Woods's funeral and utters what others in the church, including his two lovers, were afraid to admit in their eulogies of him: that Donald was a black gay man. This story has been retold in print by writers James Turcotte and Thomas Glave.

Assotto Saint, also a poet and publisher, called himself an "impossible black homosexual." That night he certainly was. Kudos to him for such a brave act.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gay Bohemian Of The Harlem Renaissance

"I've always been called flamboyant," admits Bruce Nugent, the last living figure * involved with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s."There weren't many black bohemians, I gather , at that time."

Out of the Renaissance came such literary talents as Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, to name a few. A significant number of them were gay or lesbian. Nugent was the most openly homosexual of any of them.

Nugent, himself a writer and artist, wore his bohemianism and homosexuality as a badge of honor. He became quite conspicuous because he" didn't wear socks." And because he had no permanent address, surviving on financial help from friends.

His homosexuality caused him little disapproval from the Harlem community. His own attitude was that he "thought everybody was in the 'life.'" Especially if he found them physically attractive. Nugent went about Harlem with the belief that "If you can't take me the way I am, it's your problem. It's certainly not mine." Being a bohemian, he asserts, will "probably keep me alive another 79 years."

A native of Washington, D.C., Richard Bruce Nugent came to New York around 1925. It was at that time that he met and became friends with Langston Hughes. Writes Nugent: "He was a made-to-order Hero for me. At 23 he ...had done...all the things young men dream of but never quite get done--worked on ships, gone to exotic places, known known people, written poetry that had appeared in print--everything."

It was not long before Nugent himself wrote a short story--prose-poem, as one modern-day critic labels it--that is considered the first one that depicts black homosexuality. In 1926, the year it appeared in Fire!!, a short-lived black literary journal, it shocked readers, particularly members of the black bourgeoisie.

Looking back on it nearly 60 years later, Nugent can't see what all the fuss was about. Certainly the story, by today's standards, is very mild in its bedroom scene. People shunned Nugent but for only a day or two.

The story, "Smoke, Lillies, and Jade," is written throughout  with ellipses. As a staffer at Fire!!, Nugent, with his story, used the elliptical approach because he "wanted people to think" as they read each word, each phrase, each sentence. At present, he is at work on a book he describes as being "pornographic in content."

Nugent knew he was gay from an early age. In fact, his father, who died when Nugent was in his early teens, suspected him. He recalls the day when "we were playing checkers and I kept winning games. My father said to me, 'It's time for me to die when you can beat me in checkers.' We would be playing checkers and he'd say 'Never do anything you'd be ashamed of and never be ashamed of anything you do.' " That was his father's way of telling him he knew instinctually that his son was gay.

And even though he and Langston Hughes were close friends, the rumor that Hughes was gay was not apparent to Nugent. "My personal feelings about Langston is that he was asexual. I had a big argument with [Hughes biographer] Faith Berry about that. I said to her: 'How do you know?'" Whether or not, Hughes and Zell Ingram, an artist and traveling companion, were sleeping together, as is hinted at in Berry's book, is something Nugent considers "unimportant to me. I know it was unimportant to Langston what people thought about them."

Now a resident of Hoboken, N.J., across the Hudson River from Manhattan, Nugent, a septuagenarian, still has an eye for the boys. But, he readily admits, with a chuckle,  "They don't have an eye for me. I have to wait for those peculiar people who like older men. They are few and far between."

That doesn't seem to bother him particularly. After all, when he was a young man "I missed many a streetcar I was waiting for but another one always came along. Sometimes crowded."

One of those "streetcars" was Philander Thomas, "Truly named," says Nugent. "Philander was very much a playboy. He brought people together. That's what he liked to do." In other words, a matchmaker? "Not a matchmaker in that sense, but bedmates. [People who came to Harlem did so] to vent their pleasures. Harlem was the place to be. Everybody thought they could and Philander saw to it that they did. He was quite a man, quite a funny man. I liked his random freedom. Very few people have it. I had it."

(The above passages are from an early draft of the manuscript I sent to Joseph Beam for his groundbreaking anthology, In the Life. This draft was written on June 17, 1985. I sent it to Joe so he could see my progress on the profile of Nugent.)

*Note: I was unaware at the time that another Harlem Renaissance writer, Dorothy West, was still alive.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Movie Deferred

If all goes well, Arthur Mitchell and the Dance Theatre of Harlem will be coming to a theatre near you--a movie theatre, that is.

It should be interesting to see what Hollywood does with a dramatic version of Mitchell's life story which producer Francine LeFrak, who bought the screen rights, has been trying to bring to the silver screen for years.

Ms. LeFrak, the daughter of New York real estate developer Sam LeFrak, recently hit pay dirt when she struck a deal with Jon Peters and Peter Guber to make the film in association with their production company, the Guber-Peters Entertainment Company. (Some of Guber-Peters's past films include Batman, The Color Purple, and Gorillas in the Mist.) During the shooting of the as-yet-untitled movie, Guber and Peters plan to be remotely involved.

The creative team, which includes Guber-Peters Executive Vice President Stacy Snider, sees the film project using one of two storylines: the rise of Arthur Mitchell at the New York City Ballet to become its first black principal dancer who would later create the Dance Theatre of Harlem (after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination) or a look at Mitchell in the 1990s and how he has influenced a new generation of dancers. The second approach would have multiple stories interspersed with numerous dance numbers a la the movie Fame.

The primary choice to play Mitchell is Denzel Washington, one of the hottest young black actors in Hollywood, who is presently appearing before the cameras as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's movie about the controversial black leader. According to Ms. Snider, Washington is interested in participating in the project, set to begin production sometime next year. The movie, which will be shot in New York and abroad, will take ten to fourteen weeks to shoot. Concludes Ms. Snider, with enthusiasm: "I'm sure we'll all be thrilled with the finished movie."

This unpublished article was written in November 1991.

( Note: The Dance Theatre of Harlem movie was never made.)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Naming Gay Names In Hollywood

The late film historian Vito Russo, in his marvelous book, The Celluloid Closet, had this to say about the mindset of film executives: "The movies await permission from the world-famous general public before they will portray gays as a fact of life. And the self-hatred of gays in the film industry is as much at fault as the ignorance of the general public."

With that in mind, a book proposal by Martin Strong (a pseudonym) is circulating through the New York book publishing world, looking for a home. This proposal, if and when it is expanded into a book-length work, will really shake up Hollywood, from top to bottom. No pun intended. It'll undoubtedly be a runaway best-seller.

It purports to name names. In a word, to out gay writers, directors, producers, and actors. The Scandal of Homosexual Hollywood, as the proposal is called, will also have "a list of straight production crew types and publicists," says the New York Daily News, "who find it hard to get work because of, among other things, their sexual persuasion."

Strong, a former TV director, has been gathering information about Hollywood's closeted gays for ten years.

This unpublished Mediawatch article was written in November 1991.

(A search on Google and Amazon.com did not list this title. Apparently the book was never published.)

A Rally To Reclaim "A Sacred Queer Space"

Approximately 25 gay men, most of them from the militant group Queer Nation, held a protest rally on July 27 [1991] in Central Park's Ramble section to show their support for the victims of a recent rash of anti-gay shootings there as well as to reclaim "a sacred queer space."

The three,possibly four, shootings, which occurred over the last nine months (the first was on October 7 [1990] and the most recent on July 20), took place during the late evening or early morning hours, when many gay men, the majority of them black and Hispanic , are in the longtime popular cruising area.

The assailant, described as a black man in his late 20s or early 30s, reportedly shot his victims, all white men in their 30s and 40s, from behind clumps of bushes. He is still at large.

Since the shootings, which the police have declared bias-related, many who frequent the park nightly have stayed away even though there is now a heavy presence of uniformed and undercover cops.

While some in the park welcomed the beefed-up patrols, feeling that the police were "backing us up," others felt otherwise. One Queer Nation member told a TV news crew: "Most of us don't know who to be more afraid of--the cops or the bashers. We can't trust the police because they are bashers themselves."

As the tiny procession, who wore, looped around their necks or wrists or waists, a pink plastic fluorescent string, trekked along muddy paths to the dark, heavily wooded rally site deep inside the Ramble, they periodically stopped to attach reward posters and the pink ribbons to park lampposts.

At the rally site, the participants formed a circle and held hands as several took turns expressing what the Ramble meant to them and to the gay community in general.

"Part of what's important about the Ramble," said one protester, "is that when you come here, you see all kinds of gay people who you might not see anywhere else in your usual rounds."

Another added: "The way in which the police have always dealt with gaybashing, if they didn't ignore it, was to clear out the queers [from Central Park] as a way to prevent violence. The message you've got to send is that's not the answer. We have a right to be here. We must push [for] that right."

And said still another: "I've never been in the Ramble before tonight. I regarded it as this furtive place. Not anymore. I began to realize that all through history there have been cruising places like the Ramble where gay people can discover who they are; where they can discover that there are other people like them."

As the circle broke up, and the demonstrators, a handful of whom were black, followed their respective leaders to the east or west side of Central Park, they chanted, with a mixture of assertiveness and rejoicing: "We're here, we're queer, welcome to our park."

This article was originally published in the Philadelphia Gay News (August 9, 1991).

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Poetry With Music

"Jeff Lilly's poetry dances through music and delivers a lyrical punch that should be heard and acknowledged out there in the world of words and sound."--Neeli Cherkovski, poet and author of Ferlinghetti: A Biography.

Jeffrey Lilly is a San Francisco-based poet who has recorded two poetry with music CDs  The Butterfly Flies," his most recent, and Promised Land Poems. "A number of poems on my recordings," says Lilly, an openly gay man, "are an expression of eros or a defense of eros." Especially same-gender eros, which Lilly celebrates without fear or shame or equivocation and with artistic beauty.

The Butterfly Flies features three New York musicians: Jonathan Comisar (piano), composer of the theatre piece Things As They Are, about the Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, that was performed at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in the fall of 2010; Mike Cohen (clarinet and flute), who has performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Birdland, and other venues; and Ivan Borenboim (clarinet), an artist-in-residence at Central Synagogue and a performer throughout the United States, Argentina, and Europe. Hans Christian, the German-born composer on Promised Land Poems, is also a record producer and studio engineer.

Over the years, Lilly, a convert to Judaism in 1992, has read his poetry at his GLBT synagogue, Sha'ar Zahav, as well as other venues in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Jewish-themed tracks on Butterfly include "Rabin" and "Sholom Aleichem.")

Lilly believes his "reading style is more like poetic song that is well matched with the music which amplifies my word." He has been "told I have a good performance voice that goes well with music." In addition, he continues, "I have had the good fortune of having very talented composers [like Comisar and Christian] to work with."

Among the writers Lilly has been influenced by are Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg whose pairing of poetry and music was "one essential part of the Beat movement."

A few of the poems on both CDs mix words from different languages. Lilly, who earned a bachelor's degree in political science at Duke University and a master's degree in Russian language and literature and another one in comparative literature at San Francisco State University, sees this as his way of "conveying a musical sound." He "draws on my studies of Russian, French, and Italian, as well as other foreign words I've encountered in the multicultural world of San Francisco."

Lilly is the co-editor of Art Mugs the Reaper, a project he describes as "an artistic quilt." It celebrates the work and lives of gay men who have died of AIDS. He is also at work on an as-yet-unnamed novel about a Russian emigre writer. The book is an outgrowth of his social service work among Russian emigres in San Francisco.

Jeffrey Lilly can be reached at Jeffrey Lilly Presents by sending an e-mail to JL@jeffreylillypresents.com or by regular mail at P.O. Box 31324, San Francisco, CA 94131.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Cult's Deadly Deeds

by R.D. Zimmerman
Dell Books, 277 pp. 

Homophobia (internalized and societal), religious zealotry, sexual identity, and parental love are the themes dealt with in Tribe, R.D. Zimmerman's latest mystery novel.

Set mostly in Minneapolis during a blizzard, Tribe has two storylines: a mysterious death on a university campus and a cross-statelines hunt. Both involve in one way or another the novel's central character, Todd Mills, an award-winning TV reporter whop hasn't "worked a day since his lover Michael had been murdered and the scandal of their relationship broadcast on all the media."

Tribe opens with a prologue that is a flashback of Mills's undergraduate days at Northwestern University, near Chicago, where he witnesses the falling death of Greg, a fraternity brother. Shortly before the fall, Greg, "the guy from the room next door had been spying on Todd and his friend Pat from outside the dorm room window. Catching them in a moment of intimacy, Greg shouts, "Homo alert!" Mills in a panic flees the room leaving Pat to face to face the consequences. The question  that has haunted Mills into middle age is: Was Greg's death an accident or murder? If it was murder, who was the culprit--Pat or someone else?

The prologue segues into Chapter One which brings the reader to the present day. Janice Grey, an attorney and Todd Mills's college friend, sits in her car parked in a "snow-whitened parking lot," waiting to meet Zebulon, the son she gave up for adoption. He and his infant daughter, Ribka, are on the lam from a fanatical Colorado religious cult called The Congregation. They believe "someday the government's going to come after us" and "lay siege upon us" because "God's true church was prophesized to be tortured."

Rejecting the cult's belief in faith healing, Zeb comes to Minneapolis to leave the ailing Ribka in the care of Janice, an avowed lesbian. Although happy to be reunited with her son, Janice worries that Zeb might not be able to "handle the fact that she's a dyke."

Meanwhile, two Congregation members leave a trail of bruised and battered bodies in a frantic mission to return Zeb and Ribka to "our tribe." Equally determined are Todd and his new lover Steve Rawlins, a Minneapolis police detective, to keep Zeb, Ribka, and Janice out of harm's way.

Heightening the tension is the blizzard which both helps and hinders the good guys and the bad guys alike.

Zimmerman, the author of nine other mystery novels (including Closet), an Edgar Award nominee, outGrishams John Grisham when it comes to non-stop suspense. Plus the twists and turns of the story for the most part are believable and unpredictable. Moreover, Tribe bears out the statement by literature professor Ted-Larry Pebworth in the anthology The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage, that "...[T]he main impetus of post-Stonewall gay mystery novels has been the normalization of gay life. In these works, gay individuals and gay subculture tend to be demystified and robbed of their sensationalism." Here is a domestic scene from Tribe that is a good example of the normalization Pebworth speaks of: "He [Todd Mills] took another sip of coffee, then reached for the shoe box full of photographs that sat on the coffee table. Among the many things he wanted to accomplish in this, his first pause in his professional life--he'd taken his first job at a public television station just a week after graduating from Northwestern twenty years ago and had worked constantly since--was to sort through all these pictures and get them into some albums. He also wanted to paint the second bedroom that he used as his office. Get some new skates. And do some writing about what it was like to be closeted for so long in the television industry."

However, there are some flaws: Jeff, the drag queen who babysits Ribka, is stereotypically campy and over-the-top ("Batting his eyes and queening it up, Jeff said, 'Oh, I just love a man in uniform, don't you?'), the uncharacteristic use of profanity by the cult members, the frequent use of long flashbacks, and the ambiguous ending.

Otherwise, Tribe is a thoroughly engrossing mystery. That makes it a perfect book to add to one's summer reading list.

This review was originally published in the Lambda Book Report (August 1996).