Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Healing the Homos
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Of gay people experiencing physical pain and stresses, chiropractor George Russell warns, "If we bury our history… then it generally bites us in the ass."
Do we have gay bodies? George Russell has some interesting insights, not to mention clinical experience, about that question.
A chiropractor, Russell has grown a unique practice melding his medical training, his background in dance, and his interest in spirituality. His practice, while not exclusively targeted to gay people, has informed his perspective about gay bodies and the emotional forces that affect them.
Russell graduated from Wesleyan University with a major in intellectual history and dance, then earned a masters degree in movement studies from the same institution. Afterward, he choreographed and danced in modern dance companies in New York and taught college-level dance courses.
In his 30s, he returned to school for his chiropractic degree, graduating with honors from the University of Bridgeport in 2000. Russell sees clients in an airy office off Union Square and is an instructor at the Swedish Institute and the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lennox, Massachusetts.
He's also a guest choreographer and dance master at the De Facto Dance Company in New York City.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What happens in your examination room, for goodness sake?
GEORGE RUSSELL: You never know! My work varies greatly depending on the patient's issues. This week I released muscles and joints in a frozen shoulder and helped a woman to move her arm more efficiently and fully. I did bodywork on a man with chronic pain and gave him imagery for coping with his pain and relieving it; and I helped a yoga teacher discover why she has lost hip mobility. I released muscles and coached her poses until she could sit in a full lotus position again.
And one college-aged patient remembered that she had surgery on her big toe as a child, which explained why I had noticed she twists her spine and takes a short step when she walks on the left foot. I fitted her for orthotics that would allow her gait to normalize and her spine to be even.
CM: Do people usually come with something clearly busted or in pain?
GR: Yes, I'd say so. Injury - be it mental, physical, spiritual, ecological, economic - is usually the intersection of long-held habits with an unfortunate event. In the case where the woman remembered the surgery in childhood, it was new back pain from sitting at a desk that made her decide to get help. But it was her gait that had to be corrected so she wouldn't be vulnerable to re-injury. Of course I treated her back as well.
My simple job is to provide relief from the pain. My complex and ultimately more important job is to identify the habits and the stressors that underlie them, and to help patients adapt their lives to make their systems more resilient.
CM: How do you understand the spirit/body connection?
GR: Well, the two words are two ways of approaching the same phenomenon. Science tells us that energy and matter are actually the same thing, but even scientists are having trouble catching up with that idea. And we barely have words in our language for talking about how the soul - if you want to call it that - and the lower back, for example, are always influencing one another.
I mean, there's a reason why feelings are called feelings - they happen at a physical level. And so trauma - or ecstasy, for that matter - at any level will manifest on all the others. We talk, and we generally approach injury and pain, as if the body were merely physical. But we all know intuitively that it isn't really so. In my work, I help people bring it all together.
CM: Are LGBT people any different in this? Do you see a lot of LGBT folk?
GR: I'd say the process is no different, but LGBT people generally have a history - or a present, alas - of trying to deny aspects of ourselves as they manifest in our bodies. And the habit of holding a space between our spontaneous sexuality, gender, and social orientation really dies hard, no matter how much we've come out. It forms a part of our subcultures, our psyches, and, certainly, the way we hold and move our bodies.
Imagine the way you walked down the hall in eighth grade. The awkwardness, the hiding, the pretending, the sense of disconnect between what's required to survive and our spontaneous impulses have effects that often last throughout life.
Did you ever see a big bodybuilder - and when you looked closer you could still see the frightened scrawny kid inside the shell of muscle? Sometimes what looks like our strength is really our armor, and a suit of armor is heavy to carry around. Of course, the way we've overcome adversity also provides us with tremendous physical and character strength as well.
CM: So you think people physicalize homophobia and transphobia.
GR: Oh, definitely. And it doesn't all wash away. We start with a certain genetic nature. And how we nurture ourselves as LGBT adults has a lot to do with recognizing how the culture that nurtured us - and oppressed most of us - has affected our whole selves, including the physical.
If we bury our history - especially the minute physical history of how we responded to an environment that didn't have a space for who we actually were - then it generally bites us in the ass. If we can recognize the effects of the past on the present and deal with what comes up in the present with self-honesty and compassion, then we get the dividends that we see all around us in our community - compassion, wisdom, courage, and a power we didn't know we had to change ourselves and our world.
We'll have more power and information if we pay attention to our bodies. Body memory takes us right back into all the crucial moments of our lives.
CM: You must see trends in the kinds of issues people bring to you. What trends do you see among the queer people you work with?
GR: It's hard to generalize. A lot of the people who come to me - queer or otherwise (and a lot of my straight clients are pretty queer) - are aware that the exercise forms of our culture fall short of what we need to be truly healthy. They know that, for example, that emotion and physical experience run together, but they need feedback and ideas to help them integrate and improve their experience of self.
To have comfort and health, we need at least to be able to feel - from feeling the floor under our feet to feeling how someone's reaction to us makes us tighten our necks. Our culture hasn't done a good job of teaching any of us to really feel ourselves, and queer folks least of all, since we were told in profound and unique ways to act against our impulses. Many of my queer clients know this, and are aware of still working on some level to become more fully authentic.
CM: Help me understand the overall process of working with a client. I'm sure it varies, but what's usual in terms of process, length of time in treatment, severity of complaint, and degree of resolution?
GR: As long as we're alive, we are always healing - coming into, and out of, comfort, wellness, and ability. People ask me to step in and give them a boost in a difficult situation, or when they are having trouble moving in the way that they want to. It could be a yoga pose they want to be able to perform, or it could be - literally - that they've fallen and can't get up. Some people want ongoing help to feel fully alive and awake - to live fully - while other people want to be set right in the moment so they can continue on.
My clients and I set goals together. One thing I don't like to do is fix things. I don't think an approach like that respects human experience. It's great when your neck can move again when you couldn't turn it a half hour ago, but if you don't have an idea about why it happened, what it means to you, and how you can maintain your joy and power when you walk out of the room, I don't think I've done my job. I want clients to leave my office feeling more empowered, happy and wiser then they came in.
CM: How did you come to be doing this work?
GR: I always knew how to do bodywork - to work on muscles and bodies in a way that made people feel better. Maybe that had to do with being raised by a very physical Sicilian mother!
I was a modern dancer and I started working on other dancers, casually. Then people just started seeking me out to do this kind of work. I figured I'd better get some training to figure out what the hell I was doing, because it was all intuitive at that point.
I got all kinds of movement and bodywork training, and then I went to chiropractic school. I'm still studying - most recently, Focalizing with Michael Picucci, a body-based approach to resilience in all areas, Rosen work with Heather Brown, a psycho-spiritual bodywork form, Alexander Technique with Joan Arnold, improving alignment and ease of movement... the list goes on. I keep adding new things to keep me open and flexible.
CM: How does your background as a dancer influence your approach?
GR: It's all about movement. Irene Dowd, one of my primary mentors, said that whenever she had a question about a client, her teacher Lulu Sweigard would say, "Did you look at movement?" Everything about the self is reflected in our movement patterns, and I know a problem is resolved when I no longer see it in the person's walking or sitting or whatever.
CM: What advice to you have for queer people about how they relate to their bodies?
GR: Be courageous. Feel your body fully. Seek spontaneity. At work, on the street, alone, in the gym, ask yourself, "Am I having the experience I want to? Is my behavior reactive to an imagined criticism or danger?" And then see how you work with that information.
And, of course, drink plenty of water and call me in the morning.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Trumping Politics with Culture
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Katherine Linton, producer of LOGO series "Lesbian Sex and Sexuality"
Katherine Linton is best known to gay folk around the country from her time as the host of the long-running PBS series "In The Life." Since then, she founded her own media company and has produced a series of documentaries focusing on gay life.
Originally from Westport, Connecticut, but now recently single and living in Brooklyn with her cat Popeye, Linton, 41, studied theatre at New York University and then went to Ringling Bros. Clown College. Afterwards, she joined the Big Apple Clown Care Unit and worked in municipal New York hospitals entertaining sick children.
After that came her time with "In the Life," initially as host, but then with producing duties as well. Linton was asked by LOGO to create their first documentary, "The Evolution will be Televised," but perhaps her most controversial and high impact project has been the series "Lesbian Sex and Sexuality," also for Logo. Gay City News spoke to Linton as she prepared for the "series two" launch in September.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: If anyone knows, you do: what's the hot new thing in lesbianism?
KATHERINE LINTON: Not calling yourself a lesbian. Everyone is queer now it seems.
CM: Tell the truth, what do you think the world really thinks about lesbians?
KL: The world? I think the world still thinks we are as perverted and sick as ever, and I don't think the stereotypes about us have changed all that much. We're ugly, man-hating and wouldn't be gay if only we had the right man...but since we hate men, that's not likely to happen. I'm afraid that is what the world still thinks of us.
CM: I've always been confused about the role of dildos among lesbians. What's the real deal? Merely a functionary implement, or is it a representative symbolist object, or a vibratory tool of aggression and repression?
KL: D. None of the above. They are fun....and detachable.
CM: How fast is queer identity changing right now, and where the hell are we going?
KL: I wouldn't begin to pretend to be an expert on queer identity, but I do have hope that we are going to win this nasty culture war that has been waged against us for so long. The key to winning it, though, is that none of us become complacent because we have a couple of channels or some images on TV. The religious right is still a remarkably organized and powerful force in this country, and we have to be vigilant, active, and aware.
CM: Tell me about the new season of Lesbian Sex & Sexuality, what can people expect?
KL: Sex. No just kidding. Some sex, of course, but this season is more focused on expressions of sexuality. One episode focuses on Lesbian Camp, another on fashion. We go behind the scenes of Dinah Shore, and explore the issue of whether lesbians pay for sex. Another episode gives tips and techniques on how to keep sex hot in a relationship. It's a fun season so I hope people like it!
CM: It must have been so wonderful working on this series. Tell me about one of the encounters that surprised you and one that changed your view of lesbian sexuality.
KL: Well, it's been fun but hard, I can tell you that. We filmed a lesbian sex party and that was intense to say the least. I had never been to one, so didn't know what to expect. Let's just say it was really hard to figure out how to film in a way that we wouldn't have to blur the whole thing for TV.
CM: I know you are really interested in the intersection of sexual identity and religion. What's up with your piece on the founder of Operation Rescue?
KL: It's my own film in development called "Randall and Me: Together at Last". It features Randall Terry-yes, the insane fundamentalist-and me attempting to have a real dialogue. At the end of the day it's impossible to change the mind of a fundamentalist, but maybe I moved him slightly on gay issues, I don't know. But what was and is important to me is to really listen to what the right says about us and to hone my own responses to the attacks. Living in New York and being so liberal it's easy to ignore them or call them crazy, but as I said, I think that is dangerous. Fully going into Randall's anti-abortion, anti-gay world was scary and shocking, but he is certainly not alone. On Randall's side, my world is scary. I took him to Stonewall and he thought a gay man wanted to fight him. Turns out the guy was just drunk and wanted us to film him. I had to remind Randall that it's not our side that is violent, but his. We'll see what happens with the film....
CM: Do you think we are heading towards another bang up between sexuality and conservatism as the presidential election comes down to the wire?
KL: I don't think so and hope not. Gay marriage was such a hot button issue in the 2004 election, and every pundit pegged George Bush's victory on our backs as I made clear in the launch documentary, "The Evolution will be Televised," for Logo. Maybe McCain will go there, and if he does, I just hope Obama doesn't falter as badly as Kerry did. We'll see.
CM: What do you think is the impact in American culture of positive yet saucy and sex‑positive images of queer people in the media?
KL: Armistead Maupin said it best in an interview I did with him for "The Evolution": "Culture will always trump politics." Where the culture goes, politics will eventually follow. So I have a lot of faith in the impact of culture. However, we need to make sure we challenge our cultural images again and not become complacent with just a few, and also keep pushing on the political end.
CM: What else are you working on now?
KL: Just trying to get this series Lesbian Sex and Sexuality out the door. Developing a series to pitch on polyamory. Company image make-over with our website and logo. And trying to get out of the city more!
CM: You started out in the theatre, didn't you? What do you think is most important about the ability of art forms like theatre, film, and t.v. to help tell the stories of queer people?
KL: Culture is hugely important for our community. With AIDS alone, Rock Hudson's death suddenly woke the world up-albeit inspiring a hateful panic-but then you had "Angels in America" and "Philadelphia" and so many others that were so crucial in inspiring compassion, understanding, and activism. Don't know where we would be without the arts.
CM: If you could wave your magic wand and change one thing about representations of queer people generally and lesbians particularly in the mainstream media, what would you change?
KL: More images that are more realistic. And maybe Shane's haircut, only because there were so many copycats...but that seems on the wane...and it wasn't her fault.
CM: What makes you hot?
KL: Turtleneck Sweaters.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Scandal in Manhattan
July 21, 2008
By Christopher Murray
Playwright and director Bobby Holder's comedy Scandal in Manhattan, part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival, tells the tale of two Southern sisters (Brittany Bell Spencer and Elizabeth Phillipp) caught in a rivalry for the affections of a handsome young wannabe troubadour with a secret (Evan Dahme). Following the mysterious death of their father from roach poison placed in his coffee instead of sugar, the sisters decamp to a midtown New York hotel where they encounter a cast of zanies.
Prime among the kooks they meet is the Hotel Royale's front-desk manager, the flamboyant Fred Fontaine (Joe Iozzi), and his ditzy new assistant, April (Kelly Kemp). Added to the mix like extra ingredients to a stew are an aggressive rose seller, a pair of newlyweds, and a robber with a passionate relationship with a stuffed animal, among others.
Screwball comedy is a difficult form to master. Silliness and complications galore must be balanced against a performance style that exaggerates reality without completely breaking with it. In the case of Scandal in Manhattan, the cast of 12, despite a great deal of energy, falls short of creating a delightful chaos and manages only a mostly shrill, forced, and frankly exhausting 90-minute juggernaut of pratfalls, smashups, and shouting.
When broad comedy fails to catch fire, it can be hard to assess the reasons, but in this case a flaccid script and sloppy direction leave the cast adrift, forcing them to fill in unmotivated behavior and nonsensical plot with formless and uncomfortable posturing.
Presented by the Actor's Project NYC as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival at the WorkShop Theater, 312 W. 36th St., 4th floor, NYC. July 20-30. Remaining performances: Sat., July 26, 3 p.m.; Wed., July 30, 8:30 p.m. (212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.
July 21, 2008
By Christopher Murray
This beloved revue of Fats Waller's immensely appealing songbook was performed originally in 1978 on Broadway by a company of three women and two men. In this revival by Harlem Repertory Theatre, the show has been expanded to a cast of almost 20 enthusiastic young performers, directed and choreographed by Artistic Director Keith Lee Grant. Harlem Rep makes clear its association with the City College of New York's Department of Theatre and Speech but still purports to be a professional theatre. On the basis of this production, despite flashes of potential, it must be said the quality remains strictly amateur.
That being said, it's moving to hear Waller's feisty, flirtatious, and flamboyant tunes sung just across St. Nicholas Park from where the composer grew up at 107 West 134th St. And despite a curtain speech that alerted the audience that there is no plot in the show, each number encapsulates a dramatic world of its own, full of delightful detail and dramatic potential.
Several of the performers make the most of the opportunity, notably guest artist Jimmy Mike assaying 1934's "The Viper Rag" with much style and charm, the honey-voiced Danyel Fulton delivering 1929's "I've Got a Feeling I'm Falling," and the powerhouse Alexandra Bernard and sassy Nathaly Lopez teaming up on 1929's "Find Out What They Like."
The barnlike but elegant Aaron Davis Hall is decorated by set designer Marcel Torres as a cabaret space with a banner emblazoned "Cotton Club" and a hanging triptych of images of Waller with his trademark impish grin and wagging eyebrows. But the supporting cast of over a dozen performers struggles to fill the space in dark patches of lighting by Brian Aldous and Jason Boyd and uneven amplification by Kane Chaing.
However, the seven-piece band, led by pianist and musical director Andre Danek, provides a strong platform for some lovely harmonies by the cast — in particular evidence during 1929's "Off-Time" — and ample enjoyment in the sheer joy of singing Waller's insouciant lyrics and unforgettable melodies.
Presented by Harlem Repertory Theatre at Aaron Davis Hall, 150 Convent Ave., NYC. July 18-Sept 14. Schedule varies. (212) 650-5960.
Friday, July 18, 2008
WALL-E is Gay
(In fact -- surprise! -- he's me!)
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Okay, the gay gaze sees gays everywhere. We can turn the most innocent phrase into a sexual innuend0 - including even "innuendo" yuk yuk. We can insist for years that Tom Cruise is gay - really! I know a friend of a friend of a friend who did him in his trailer! Really! We can even almost reasonably imagine Bert and Ernie as the classic co-dependent gay couple, endlessly arguing over the curtains.
But to turn this sweet, lonely, Clutterers Anonymous robotic wannabe turned megastar at the megaplex into a closet case just strains credulity, doesn't it?
Heck, no! It's as clear as the lack of a nose on his cute little binocular face, he's a big homo-robo if ever there was one!
Let's run the numbers:
- I don't care if Babs doesn't make an appearance in any of the clips, he's obsessed with "Hello, Dolly," isn't that enough? He recreates the choreography, for Crissakes! (Full disclosure - I recreated the tearful goodbyes from the song "Anatevka" from "Fiddler on the Roof" in my teenaged bedroom.)
- He's a card-carrying fetishist, fondling objects obsessively and creating altars to display them. Let's not even talk about the scene with the brassiere. (Full disclosure - it was my older sister's baby blue one-piece bathing suit and I looked fabulous!)
- The damn movie opened Gay Pride Weekend. Duh!
- He knows lighting. All those little twinkle lights he puts up to create a mood? You go, Ms. Thom Filicia 2.0!
- His best friend is a cockroach with a penis-shaped head to rival that of Darth Vader.
- He has a speech impediment, the electronic version of a lisp.
- He's a lonely, deformed little gnome-atron dutifully carrying out his assigned tasks with a masochistic fervor while pining away for the unobtainable beauty to whom he slavishly devotes himself. (FD: Daniel Oberholtzer, track team Adonis, I still love you and I always will!)
- He doesn't want to shtup her, he just wants to hold hands. 'Nuff said.
So. Do I make my point clear? If not, the mewling sobs of the queens in the back row of the movie theaters might clue you in. We've always had a special place in our hearts for the quasi-human Pixar characters - that big sexy bluish bear-thing in "Monsters, Inc.," the prissy Ty Rex in "Toy Story," Ellen Degeneres' ditzy Dory, the fish in "Finding Nemo," Monica Lewinsky in "The Intern." Oh, sorry, she hasn't been pixilated yet. But I can't WAIT!
Yet what's clear from a queer reading of "Wall-E" is the reality that gay male self-image is still, even in these late, marriageable days, inextricably bound up in deep-rooted feelings of exclusion, unacknowledged valor, and the transcendent, redemptive power of being able to distinguish an unrecognized treasure from garbage. And showtunes, glorious, glorious showtunes.
WALL-E, you're my hero, you trashy little stud. Why won't you return my text messages?
Can I Help You?
July 18, 2008
(photo by Jared Slater)
By Christopher Murray
"Alphonse, you are going to feel a big needle." Nine words blandly spoken but likely to strike terror in the heart of poor Alphonse — and a typical moment in the experimental collaborative Exploding Moment's new work.
Can I Help You? takes as its source material footage from an unnamed medical reality television program that focuses on patients admitted to a trauma center after various car accidents and mishaps. Five actors — Shea Elmore, Johnny Lops, Sharla Meese, Katherine Sullivan, and Katherine Wessling — painstakingly directed by Catharine Dill, re-enact different snippets of footage in a deliberately deconstructed manner. A transcriber upstage sits keying in the shoots, ostensibly for editing purposes, while varying perspectives are presented in the foreground.
Sometimes the actors gather around and meticulously pantomime a procedure in an operating theatre; additional sequences mimic medical personnel narrating surgeries or commenting on a patient's prognosis. Yet other moments are more clearly theatrical expressions, as when actors playing a doctor and patient engage in a pas de deux of pain to the "music" of a newly admitted patient crying out, or when closed-circuit video shows sides of meat being poked to replicate the often graphic shots of operations shown on television.
This postmodern presentation of the cable-ubiquitous images of real-life distress is often captivating in its technical sophistication, but the work's greater purpose is to reveal often unintentionally ironic shifts in perspective and purpose, in this case among medical staff, patients, and videographers.
The subject matter couldn't be more dramatic or, oddly enough, banal. Life and death moments alternate with the snide, self-protective sang-froid of nurses in cutesy scrubs and the often callous utilitarianism of a TV crew performing a surgery of its own to get the footage needed for a program.
The iris of the piece keeps opening wider, however, with increasing and disturbing poignancy as it reveals more of the backstory of some patients, particularly one Lisa Campbell, played with devastating bovine candor by Meese. Hospitalized after a car accident that might be concealing another, more sinister trauma, Lisa is drunk and belligerent when first admitted, howling in pain, then coy and self-congratulating days later as she prepares to be released back to the stresses of single motherhood and intones, at a cameraman's suggestion, "I will never drink alcohol again."
Such complicated albeit incomplete stories rely on the viewer to connect the dots and make interpretations and elevates Can I Help You? from an obsessively detailed theatrical experiment into a moving short story in which the audience is seduced into the role and responsibility of narrator.
Presented by Exploding Moment at the Bushwick Starr, 207A Starr St., Brooklyn, NYC. July 17-26. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m. (212) 352-3101 or (866) 86118-4111 or www.theatremania.com.
I'm totally jazzed that my dear friend director Chas Brack's new film, Dreams Deferred, about the horrible 2003 bias murder of 15 year old Newark queer youth Sakia Gunn is being shown August 22-24 at BAM's Rose Cinemas, following it's successful premier last month as part of the NewFest, New York's annual LGBT film festival.
Go here for times and info and check out the project's website here. It's a tremendously important documentary. I was proud to support it and encourage you to see it!
Take a look at my friend Shelly Cryer's just published book, The Nonproft Career Guide, which outlines employment opportunities for young people looking for a job that makes a difference in the world.
Chapters focus on practical assessments of nonprofit employment options, advice on interviewing and resumes, and a few dozen profiles of people working in nonprofits across the country, including me!
My profile focuses on the work I did during my time at New York City's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center. I'm pleased to have it included.
For more information, check out the book's webpage here.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Ms. Green Sings the Blues
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Bringing order by day, Ryan Green offers mournful tunes by night.
"Ms. Green - Assisted Suicide"
258 Bowery, btwn. Houston & Prince Sts., 2nd fl.
Jul. 15, 22 & 29 at 8 p.m.
$15; $12 for students, seniors
dixonplace.org or 212-219-0736
By day, Ryan Green sits behind that queer spacepod of an elevated desk just inside the front door of the LGBT Community Center on West 13th Street. There he oversees a staff who welcome more than 5,000 Center users each week, a responsibility that includes the Herculean task of keeping the place safe for everyone. That might mean smoothing ruffled feathers, calming frayed nerves, talking down a drama queen, setting some limits, and occasionally even calling an ambulance.
When he found out his son's job description, Green's dad, an undercover drug cop in Cincinnati, said, in mock shock, "You're in charge of cupcake security!" Thank God someone is.
By night, Green, 28, is an up and coming gender-indifferent chanteuse of the Justin Bond school. His new show, "Ms. Green - Assisted Suicide," runs Tuesday nights in July at Dixon Place as part of the queer HOT! Festival, where he is artist-in-residence for the summer. The show, a series of songs and monologues musing on mortality, emerged largely in response to his father's death from cancer in December.
Ryan has made a name for himself singing moody and sometimes mournful bossa nova numbers - including a Brazilian version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun." Trust me, it's brilliant. In order to master the form, he learned to play the guitar, the pandeiro (a type of Brazilian tambourine), and to speak Portuguese. He recently released a bossa nova CD, "Tive Razao" ("I Was Right"), with guitarist Scott Anderson, available on iTunes.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What's the show at Dixon Place about and why does it have such a cheery title?
RYAN GREEN: It's about being alive and the problems that arise as a result. It's about surviving bad things that happen. The title is cheery, isn't it? Well, I think everyone has thought about killing themselves at one point or another. Or thought about asking someone else to kill them. I think it's all part of human nature. And I really feel like none of this would be happening were it not for my director, Michael Cherry, who has, in the words of the Divine Miss M, "taken chicken shit and turned it into chicken salad."
CM: What special privileges come with being the Dixon Place Hot! Festival's artist-in-residence? Do you get free popcorn or anything?
RG: I think just free cold cream.
CM: Who else is in the festival that people should know about?
RG: Well, there's so many great people. There's [monologist] Laryssa Husiak, who is just so good. And there's [operatic sexpot singer] Joseph Keckler and his pal [writer] Erin Markey. [Kiki & Herb's] Kenny Mellman and [Liverpudlian cross dressing stripper] LaJohn Joseph. And, of course, the amazing [dancer/choreographer] Rose Calucchia, who also works at the LGBT Center with me.
CM: Where did your interest in Brazilian music singing in Portuguese come from?
RG: Well, I was working at this restaurant in the West Village while taking French lessons from a Parisian in East Harlem. One day while waiting tables, I overheard some women speaking the most beautiful language I'd ever heard. It turned out they were from Brazil speaking Portuguese. It was in that moment that I said, "The hell with French."
CM: Are you Latino? How do you manage all your identities? Which ones take precedence?
RG: I am not Latino. I'm actually a half-breed. Half white and half black. Just a mulatto girl really. You know, like Mariah Carey. People always ask me if I felt like I had to choose. I didn't. I just was what I was. But when I think about, you know, childhood trauma, I think about being called a fag and all of that - walking the hallways of my middle school - my eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Zimmerman, a white man with a jerry curl, making fun of me in front of the entire class. That kind of abuse sort of overshadowed everything else. The bi-racial stuff was more of a side issue.
CM: Do you consider yourself to be working in any specific gay performance tradition?
RG: I would consider what I'm working on as sort of progressive gay cabaret. Storytelling and song singing.
CM: What songs make you weep at home alone at 3 a.m.?
RG: Oh God. Well, when my aunt died in 2000, I would just sit in front of the television in my dorm room and watch Bette Midler sing "Stay With Me" from "Divine Madness," over and over and over and just cry and cry. It was all very gay. Also, when Justin Bond and Kenny Mellman do "Moments of Pleasure," that really gets me.
CM: So running the front desk at the LGBT Center - that must be trippy. How do you wrangle and intimidate everyone from Larry Kramer on a rampage to dozens of homeless drag queens every day?
RG: Intimidate! I love that. Well, it's a wonderful job. I love the people I work with. The girls of the front desk are a special lot. I'm very proud to be a part of the Center and I really do feel like I help people.
CM: From your vantage point as the welcome wagon lady for the gay community, how are the homos changing these days? Are we getting better or worse?
RG: Oooh, what a question. Well, I think lesbians have always had their shit together more than us faggots. I think we're a real mess. I can't believe how internally homophobic we are with each other. Its like, the lesbians have, at least from my perception, this openness and acceptance of butch/ femme identities - but the faggots all want to be "straight acting" which is such a screwed up term and I can't believe people use it as a compliment. It's like the N-word to me. I don't get it. I think we need a faggot revolution where femme faggots, off stage, are valued as much as the butch ones. Am I right? I mean the Center has a lesbian group called "Butch Femme Society." Would gay men ever have a group like this? Well, why the hell not?
CM: You used to wear a big droopy, funereal purple silk flower in your lapel at the front desk. Why, and where is it now?
RG: It's actually navy blue with purple accents. It's in a drawer under my vanity. I wore it to draw attention to my chest area. I think I have a nice breastbone. But then I started to notice that every time someone showed me a picture from a work thing, or a night out, I had that goddamn flower on. I thought, "Lady, it's time to move on." It was really heavy anyway. Plus, it always caused such a scandal with the girls on the A train every morning. Especially when I wore it with my Daisy Dukes.
CM: What's the new musical frontier for Ms. Green?
RG: I'm very into world music: bossa nova, French chanson, and now fado, this really depressing Portuguese music. The word fado means fate - "the inexorable destiny that nothing can change." The fado singers, know as fadistas, are backed by two guitarists. They wear black shawls and sing about death and loss. I had my first fado gig last weekend on the day of the Gay Pride Parade. I thought it was a wonderful idea. I mean, come on, suicidal Portuguese music sung by a homosexual in an Italian restaurant. What better way to spend Gay Sunday?
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Everyday A Challenge
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
So what happened with gay men and meth? A couple of years ago everyone was in a panic. Eighth Avenue was crowded with bus stop posters decrying the scourge that was crystal methamphetamine, it seemed like everyone knew someone who had just lost their job or soul to Tina, brunch pals were dropping like flies. Health officials and community activists made the direst possible predictions about the perfect storm of meth and HIV, not to mention flesh-eating, drug-resistant bacterial infections. Yikes!
Well, the truth is that meth, like crack cocaine, is still around and still wreaking havoc in the lives of gay men and others; it's just gone underground. The public panic has waned, as it always does - a point this newspaper's Duncan Osborne has taken pains to point out - and all the hoopla has subsided into the daily grind of users using and former users struggling to stay clean.
The effort to silence the seductive siren's call of crystal meth has proven in many cases to be a tremendously difficult battle that still takes enormous effort even years after a user has admitted he has a problem and taken substantial steps to address it.
Just ask anyone in the still crowded rooms of the 12-step group Crystal Meth Anonymous (http://www.nycma.org), which has more than 30 meetings a week in Manhattan. Those guys know the different cycles of relapse, because they hear about it every day.
There are people like Davis (all the names in this article have been changed) in early recovery but still struggling to go for even a week without binging. "It's like I'm trying to climb up the slope of a mountain and just can't get traction. I keep sliding back. If I have money, I'll buy drugs. If I feel down, I'll go online to try to hook up with someone who's using. I just can't get over the hump."
Achieving abstinence can be particularly difficult with meth because the way it operates on the brain may actually interfere with a person's ability to withstand triggers to use. Cocaine is known to flush the brain with more than 500 percent the normal level of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine, whereas meth can stimulate the release of more than 1,500 percent. But when the party's finally over, a user is running only on fumes to support his emotional stability as the brain slowly attempts to recover.
For many people, getting sober requires an all-out effort, not infrequently an inpatient detox program with specific experience in treating meth addicts like the ones at Manhattan's Addiction Institute (http://www.addictioninstituteny.org), at the Pride Institute (http://www.pride-institute.com), a long-time presence in Minnesota that now operates in New Jersey as well. But go-away rehab programs are costly and often not covered by stingy managed care companies. Luckily, there are other options, like the LGBT Community Center's new outpatient recovery program (http://gaycenter.org/health/recovery) that operates on a sliding scale based on people's ability to pay and accepts Medicaid.
But all too often, even when someone has been able to cobble together a few months of clean time, and has a whole host of new perspectives on what made them vulnerable to getting hooked on meth, and has even re-crafted their world from a shady network of users into a supportive sober community, relapse is more often the norm than an exception.
"I was six months off meth," said Charlie, "I was going to CMA meetings every day. But I was lonely I hadn't learned how to have sex and be intimate with another guy without meth. Slowly I started back sniffing around online, then jerking off thinking about crystal sex. An old fuck buddy from like more than a year ago texted me one day I called in sick to work and was back in the saddle with meth."
For Charlie, his relapse was luckily just a slip and within a couple days, he was back at CMA and slowly counting each clean day again. But for some guys, getting back to sobriety can take months. "I was so ashamed of myself," said Gordon who relapsed last year after being two-and-a-half years off meth. "I was supposed to be a pillar of sobriety, advising people who just got clean. I was supposed to have it figured out. When I broke up with my boyfriend, I got so depressed, and then when I relapsed, I just couldn't face telling people it had happened. And so it kept happening. It was really a nightmare."
While Gordon has stopped again, the sense of fragility - that the specter of meth addition might raise its head at any time - plagues him daily. "It's never over with crystal," he said. "As long as it's out there somewhere, I need to be constantly vigilant."
While the intensity of the drug and its effect on the brain explains some of the frequency of relapse, it's likely that there are other contributory factors. Internalized homophobia may find expression in the power of the drug to silence all the self-lacerating chatter that goes on in the minds of gay men as they attempt to find love and connection in a world still freaked out by HIV and where standards for physical beauty and success can often seem unattainably high.
Crystal's sneaky specialty is that it puts gay men in a precious mental zone where they can be with themselves, with their own bodies and with other men and their bodies, without the often covert self-sabotaging thoughts that tell them they are too fat, too stupid, too something to be loved. The problem, of course, is the awful price that meth exacts for the few hours of unalloyed pleasure.
If relapse is regularly a part of the recovery process with meth, the challenge is learning how to quit through slips - not let them deter you but rather teach you, helping you to get back up on the horse. Relapse is dangerous, certainly, but the hope is that the skills that someone learns in getting clean once can be applied when they are needed again - skills like reaching out to others, making sure there are plenty of resources to help and not the bare minimum, and uncovering the shadowy influence of internalized homophobia.
Gay men are nothing if not resilient. In the ongoing battle against addiction to crystal meth, meeting the challenge of relapse means being fully who we are and not allowing a drug to turn us into mere shells of ourselves.
Christopher Murray, LCSW, is a therapist in private practice in Chelsea who can be reached at http://www.christophermurray.org.
Melissa Sklarz, a New York transgender rights advocate, shown here with New York Governor David A. Paterson, will be on the Rules Committee at the Democratic National Convention in August.
Conventional Wisdom Is the Goal
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
Although she snagged only a cameo in the 2005 film "TransAmerica" starring Felicity Huffman, Melissa Sklarz has played a long-standing role as one of the most respected and effective transgender community activists in New York. After proving an important mover in the recently successful push to finally get GENDA, a gender expression non-discrimination bill, through the State Assembly, she was just named one of ten New Yorkers on the Rules Committee of the Democratic National Convention set for Denver this August. In 2004, Sklarz was one of only six transgendered delegates at the convention in Boston.
A director of the New York Trans Rights Organization, she's currently the vice chair of National Stonewall Democrats' board of directors and is a former president of Manhattan's Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats.
By day, Sklarz, 57, is the collections manager at the Actor's Fund Credit Union, having previously worked for Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Gay Games. A former high school varsity athlete, she's a center fielder on the Vikings team in the Big Apple Softball League, where she's played the last eight years.
A 14-year resident of Manhattan, Sklarz recently moved to Woodside in Queens. Growing up on Long Island, she went to her first transgender bar in 1976 and has "never really looked back."
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: So, you are heading to Denver!
MELISSA SKLARZ: I have been elected to be on the Rules Committee as one of the representatives from New York State at the Democratic National Convention.
CM: Does that mean you are an Obamamaniac?
MS: I was elected as Hillary Clinton supporter, and the New York part of the Rules Committee is made up of about 60 percent former Clinton supporters which is no surprise, since she did so well in New York. State Assemblymember Jonathan Bing was also selected, and he supported Hillary. Gay activist Corey Johnson will come, too, and he is an Obama supporter. For all of us, going on the Rules Committee, but not as delegates, will mean we have credentials and access without having a floor vote.
CM: Are you supporting Obama now? How is he on trans issues?
MS: Yes, I am. He is supportive of a trans-inclusive ENDA [the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act] and trans-inclusive hate crimes legislation. Those are the two big issues, the only ones that either of the candidates will ruminate on.
After he's elected, Obama may well think more outside the box. But anything progressive that the congressional Democrats manage to pass legislatively will be challenged by the conservatives through legal action and - guess what? - the courts have been thoroughly Republicanized. Just look here in New York State, where we are seeing conservatives suing Governor Paterson for saying he'll recognize any gay marriage performed outside of New York.
CM: Do you think the trans community nationwide shares the optimism of Senator Obama's supporters?
MS: I cannot speak for an entire national community, but here in New York, we are thrilled about the passage of GENDA in the State Assembly. That victory provided for reasonable and serious debate about our community on the floor of the Legislature. So we are doing good here, as for the other 49 states... I think our trans community is used to being victimized and it's hard sometimes to even acknowledge our victories. I think trans people carry their personal hurts and defeats along with them. However, I expect the political environment of 2009 to be very different, and that it will enter the realm of exciting possibility.
CM: Will there be any other trans people at the convention?
MS: From coast to coast, there will be eight or nine of us in Denver, a few more than last time, so we've seen an increase, which is good. In Boston in 2004, the most important thing for us was the coming together of a national trans community working as one to create a foundation for our political process. We had a meeting with the Kerry people with a full national transgender agenda prepared. They were not very open to it, but what we did ask them to do was to stop saying "gay, gay, gay" all the time and instead refer to "the LGBT community," and that they did.
CM: You mentioned the passage of GENDA in the State Assembly, what's the next step there?
MS: Having the bill come before the State Senate. Senator Tom Duane is carrying the bill, but I don't think we have any Republican involvement yet. The Senate has historically been unfriendly to LGBT issues, but we either need to find Republicans to support it, or to take back the Senate, so that's the next step.
CM: What to your mind was the tipping point on passing GENDA in the Assembly?
MS: Well, the Empire State Pride Agenda made it a number-one priority of election year 2008. We got our coalition together - who told their Assembly people, who eventually were able to convince Speaker Sheldon Silver of its importance. The explosion over ENDA in Washington may also have had an impact. But the clear commitment of ESPA is to make the Democrats the majority in the State Senate.
The process for GENDA in the Assembly this year was great. The bill went through quick and easy. I was there for the debate and was very moved by hearing our friends and rather shocked by listening to our enemies, I've never heard firsthand what the conservative Republicans think of our GENDA bill before. I've spent almost ten years trying to convince our Democrat friends this is important and valid. But hearing the Republican perspective for the first time during the debate was ugly. The conservative party has their talking points about GENDA, and it has to do with locker rooms and bathrooms, and the idea that sexual predators will now be dressing up as women and getting access to women-only spaces
CM: How does it feel to hear these things?
MS: Simple - more work. More work is all. Hell, they are lawmakers, and they are entitled to their opinion. They just need more education. We need more voices, more faces, more education. But our friends were great - Danny O'Donnell, Deborah Glick, Dick Gottfried, and Brooklyn's Jim Brennan, they were all great.
CM: Tell me about the pain of the last Congressional session's debate about ENDA.
MS: We had spent years... how do I put this? In the Bush agenda there is no room for trans rights or LGBT rights. They worked very hard to de-gay their legislation. All the work of the Clinton administration, they worked hard to remove. Only since 2006, since the Dems took over Congress, have new ideas come into play. I started lobbying federally in the Clinton years and stopped in the Bush years. It didn't seem to make sense.
CM: Are you saying you weren't surprised by what happened to ENDA?
MS: As recently as 2002 we were trying to get the language of ENDA changed to be trans-inclusive. It finally had a chance when the Human Rights Campaign changed their mind in 2004. After the fiasco here in New York when trans-language was never included in the gay rights bills, Matt Foreman went to bat for us, while he was running the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, but then last year HRC reversed its decision.
CM: So why did the powers that be decide to exclude the trans-inclusive language?
MS: Hard to say, really. My guess is that perhaps it came from George Miller [the California Democrat who chairs the House's Committee on Education and Labor] or it's very possible that the supportive Republicans came together in conference with [Connecticut] Representative Christopher Shays and demanded a gay-only ENDA. We don't know, but the Dems didn't want a war on this. Whether it was ultimately Miller, Barney Frank, or Nancy Pelosi's strategy decision, I don't know. But HRC supported it. In any event, it would be hard to change it back now that it's gone through the House. I'm not all that optimistic.
CM: I'm struck by your dispassionate stance, how practical you are. Is that the voice of experience?
MS: My focus is the fight. I don't focus on victory. I'm in it for the fight. Our trans community is so small and virtually invisible, and for me to make demands of the culture at large where so few relate to and recognize our needs would be a waste of energy.
CM: How to you keep going?
MS: I think the fight is worth it. I like the fights. I like the ideas behind the fights.
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
My Revson Fellow pal Claudia Preparata introduced me to her friend, writer Lisa Chamberlain this past weekend. Lisa's new book, Slackonomics, comes out in a week or so and looks like a terrific window in the the generation x world through an economic lense. Check it out at her webpage!
Four Women & a Waitress
June 13, 2008
By Christopher Murray
Each of the brief one-acts on this double bill features a pair of women engaged in conflict -- two sisters in Edward Allan Baker's Rosemary With Ginger and two actors in Strindberg's The Stronger, translated by Carl Mueller -- expressed in coarse argument in the former and subtle observation in the latter.
In Rosemary With Ginger, the eponymous sisters come together upon the closing of Rhode Island's Peter Pan Diner in 1993. Among the worn chairs, dirty walls, and half-filled coffee cups, they attempt to fill out an entry for a mother-of-the-month contest to honor their long-suffering mom but quickly fall into recrimination about the way their lives have turned out.
Pamela Shaw, with big hair and blue sunglasses and cracking both gum and wise, portrays the alcoholic Rosemary as struggling to maintain a sense of umbrage at most likely losing custody of her children. Aria Alpert as Ginger maintains a tense smile in the face of her sister's foulmouthed jeremiads even as her own marriage has hit the rocks. The play, directed by actor Karl Bury, is a little clunky, following standardized dramatic clichés, but the actors reveal the bonds of survivorhood that temper the sister's obvious distaste for one another.
In Strindberg's jewel of a monologue, Frau X (the frisky and intelligent Francesca Faridany) comes upon her old acting and romantic rival, Mlle. Y (noted Swiss actor and director Marthe Keller) in a café on Christmas Eve. While Frau X talks and talks, working her way through nostalgia, accusation, and finally self-satisfied admiration for her friend, Mlle. Y sits silently, nibbling on almonds and reacting only in gesture and glance.
The piece, directed by opera director Stephen Wadsworth, is a cheeky bit of theatrical effect in its deliberate unbalance, but it works, because both actors are so tuned into one another's communication of emotion and tension, expressed in endless anecdote or the meaningful silence of a cat. Keller's beatific smile and worried eyes say volumes, while Faridany's sense of comedy and pathos is evident from her entrance, when she first spies her friend and her eyes light up and the torrent of words gushes forth.
Presented by Maggie Maes and Kimberly Vaughn
at the ArcLight Theatre, 152 W. 71st St., NYC.
June 11-22. Tue.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 5 p.m.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
This Is a Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me
June 03, 2008
By Christopher Murray
Katie Bender's wistful and moving new play, in which she also appears, is set in the west Texas desert town of Marfa, which, a program note explains, the playwright passed through in 2004, learning it was the adopted home and creative laboratory of minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, who died in 1994.
Throughout This Is a Cowboy Poem My Daddy Taught Me, Bender has a fictionalized version of Judd (the craggy Stephen Payne affecting a folksy twinkle reminiscent of Will Rogers) deliver a series of monologues explaining his creative and social vision as defined by his commitment to building an artistic haven among the dusty, disaffected denizens of Marfa.
Bender also explores the impact of this transplanted patriarch on the intersecting lives of a young woman named Love (Bender), who is retracing the pit stops of her wayward post-hippie mother; a disappointed local named Scrappy (Jesse Presler); and, in flashbacks, Scrappy's bellicose, rifle-toting sister Crystal (Mary Guiteras). Scrappy and Crystal were abandoned by their parents to white-trash squalor and an intense, almost incestuous interdependence.
On Stephanie Tucci's economically designed set, short scenes alternate among three locales: Judd's studio, the bar where Scrappy pours whiskey for Love as they share tales of lost legacies and shattered dreams, and the dilapidated front porch of the siblings' house, littered with dented Diet Coke cans used for target practice and the jetsam of a hardscrabble childhood: broken toys and overwashed underclothes.
Lost parents and the betrayals inherent in moving on from childhood's disillusionments are themes expressed mostly in traditional realistic dialogue, with expressionistic collage elements added as the play builds to its climax under Stephanie Yankwitt's deft direction. The subtle and apt costuming is by Jennifer L. Adams.
An excessive reliance on monologues to express the characters' emotional states reveals the play to be incompletely dramatized, but heartfelt performances engage the audience's empathy. Presler stands out in a workhorse role, his pinched, unshaven face moving from an adolescent's gawky credulity to a young man's numb disbelief in the possibility of his own redemption.
Presented by Rockstead Productions and the Cardinal Group at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex's Dorothy Strelsin Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., New York City.
May 29-June 15. Thu.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.
Casting by Judy Bowman.
Friday, May 30, 2008
The redoutable editor of the award-winning Brooklyn Paper, Gersh Kuntzman, (did you know he also co-wrote the critically acclaimed off-broadway play "SUV: The Musical" with songwriter Marc Dinkin?), was kind enough to give my private practice a shout out in last week's issue. Thanks, Gersh!
Our gay/political/social work/writer/Democratic insider pal Christopher Murray was happy to report that he’s now licensed as a social worker by New York State and has set up a private practice. First on the agenda? Life-coaching sessions with gay men or men with a history of substance abuse (or both?). Contact him at www.christophermurray.org. …
Thursday, May 29, 2008
I just acquired this untitled drawing by Josef Kozak from the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation. Outsider artist Kozak creates detailed mythological fantasias often weaving elements from 17th century and Native American images and motifs. Usually sexually explicit, his work is technically at a high level, and incorporates a winking humor into a strongly narrative expression.
This piece was featured in a recent edition of "The Archive," the journal of the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation, and was made available to me by Charles Leslie.
An interview with Kozak appeared in the Spring/Summer, 1999 edition of "The Archive".
Sunday, May 4, 2008
The Judas Tree
April 29, 2008
By Christopher Murray
The historical story of currently incarcerated Latina serial killer Dorothea Puente, who dispatched elderly and drifter residents of her Sacramento boarding house, makes terrific dramatic material in Mary Fengar Gail's fictionalized The Judas Tree.
MultiStages' world premiere production is set a film noirish 30 years previous to the 1988 conviction of Puente. Voluptuous landlady Elena Fiero (played with defiant intensity by the comely Roseanne Medina) sees herself as a bruja and priestess of nature, saying, "I killed no one…. They sacrificed themselves through me," though she happily cashes her victims' government checks. When the uncle of a young woman who disappeared while staying with Elena asks a retired private investigator (John Haggerty) to insinuate himself into her world, he quickly falls prey to Elena's seductive charms and risks being another victim planted in her garden.
Told through the familiar Law & Order framing device of a trial, The Judas Tree alternates between somewhat prolonged two-person scenes full of florid language — "We chicas know the chacha of the flowers as they dance" — and sung commentary by five dancers comprising what the program calls the Chorus Corpus Flora, who wave their arms in ecstatic, Isadora Duncan-style movements choreographed by Jennifer Chin.
This play with music (by Anika Paris, with lyrics by James Schevill) drags in places by overlaboring the religious and botanical symbolism of Elena's specious rationale for her murders. But a strong supporting cast helps make up for that, particularly Daniel H. Hicks in the dual roles of the concerned uncle and an elderly boarder, Tanya Perez as a chatty boarder and expert witness, and José Febus in several roles, most movingly a disabled boarder who becomes an unwilling accomplice.
Presented by MultiStages
at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center's Teatro La Tea, 107 Suffolk St., 2nd floor, NYC.
April 26-May 11. Tue.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., May 4, 5 p.m.; Sun., May 11, 2 p.m.
(212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
A White Crane Conversation with David Mixner
By Christopher Murray
This is only an excerpt...
Called “the most powerful Gay man in America” by Newsweek magazine following his successful efforts to marshal Gay money and resources for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, political advisor David Mixner helped start the nation’s first Gay political action committee, the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles (MECLA), and was a co-founder of the Gay & Lesbian Victory Fund, the Washington-based national organization that identifies and supports highly qualified LGBT candidates for public office. He has been a leading advisor on several other presidential bids, including those of Richard Gephardt, Gary Hart, and George McGovern. In February, Mixner endorsed Barack Obama, saying, “The major factor in my decision to endorse Obama is the war in Iraq. To put it simply, he was right from the beginning. There is absolutely no question in my mind that Senator Obama is Senator Clinton’s peer on substance and policy. Clearly, he is not only ready on day one to be president, but he also will be right on day one! Obama has surrounded himself with some of the best minds in the country. He has the ability to inspire us to make sacrifices and to serve our nation. The senator has one of the best minds in the country. Like President Kennedy, he and his family will make us proud to have them in the White House. So, with great enthusiasm, I embrace Senator Obama and am allowing myself to dream and believe again.”
Christopher Murray: You said to me once that you have a vision for a Gay president. Why? How?
David Mixner: In America, the ultimate sign of success of a group making it, whether it was John Kennedy being Catholic, or a Jewish president someday, is living in the White House. Right now, we have two candidacies in part powerfully motivated by one being African American, Barack Obama, and one being a woman, Hillary Clinton. The attainability of someone from our Lesbian and Gay community being president one day is the ultimate symbol that one has arrived and been accepted by society.
That’s power, real power, where we are judged on our talents as whole human beings and not on our sexuality, where it’s possible for young Gay people to have any dream that they want and know that it’s attainable. If you one of us could be president, then any of us could be anything we want.
Murray: What is Gay political power and how is it changing over time?
Mixner: I don’t know if there is such a thing as Gay political power. I think there is such a thing as political power and that Gays are finally in a position to participate. If we are talking about Gay political power, we are talking about who is head of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. Real power is people: Gay people heading committees in state legislatures and city councils. For the first time in the last decade, we are now in the position of attaining major political power and having not only a place at the table, but helping to design the table. It was less than four decades ago that Elaine Noble, when she ran for the legislature in Massachusetts, had to have armed guards. It was literally only two decades ago that Michael Dukakis refused to take organized, Gay-bundled funds. It was three decades ago that people refused to take my check as a political donation because I was openly homosexual.
That meant that the political power we had was internally focused. Who was on what board. Our status and self-esteem was based on our own community-based organizations. Now we are finding out as members of the community and getting married, having families, that we are no longer tokens. That although we have a broad range of frontiers to still break through, the fact of the matter is that it is not an anomaly for a Gay person to head the budget committee or ways and means committee in the legislature, which is real power. It is not an anomaly to be an openly Gay campaign manager for a candidate for president. So, what we have made is a transition from that internal focus of power to now where we are participating in power in society generally. This applies outside of politics as well.
Murray: What price have you paid personally for the unprecedented access you have had to the top echelon of political power in our country?
Mixner: It’s something I don’t think about too much. Thinking about it makes it more difficult to accept. It’s easier to avoid the question and just move on. I come from a time where I sat around my family’s dining room table and when a young Gay man killed himself in our neighborhood, my father and mother thought his family was better off. And a time when my partner was served by friends on paper plates because of fear of AIDS. When I was growing up, I thought I wanted to be an ambassador or senator or president but was told that would not be possible.
So there is no question, being Gay has changed the course of my life. Having children was out of the questions, running for political office was out of the question. Being fired from your job or being destroyed politically was a very real possibility if anyone knew. We saw friends arrested for sexual activity in parks and their names printed in the newspapers. What toll did it take? An enormous one. Eventually you cross a line with that oppression where you just aren’t willing to take it any longer. And that resolution to fight that oppression becomes your energy. Not only mine, I remember Harvey Milk and Elaine Noble and many others saying we cannot let another generation go through this. It was an understanding of the modern LGBT movement that few of us would experience the spoils of victory from our work. At this point, we’ve experienced success far greater than any of us would have expected. I’m too old now at sixty to be a dad and throw a football around with my son, but I could still run for office if I chose. But by the time that possibility came into my grasp, I had no desire for it.
Murray: Examples of the cost are that you have been blackmailed and sent into the political wilderness several times in your career.
Mixner: When I was working against the Viet Nam war and achieved notoriety working for Eugene McCarthy as one of the four coordinators of the Viet Nam War Moratorium Committee, there is zero doubt in anyone’s mind that, if I had been openly Gay, I wouldn’t have been able to do any of that work. None. I would have been viewed as a horrible weight on the anti-war movement and doing damage to the greater good. So, I was closeted. And during that period, I fell head over heels in love with someone who had been planted by someone. Some intelligence agency or some Gordon Liddy-type operation. It’s still unclear to me who. Photographs were taken and I was blackmailed and told that if I didn’t get out of the anti-war movement, those explicit photographs would be sent to my parents and the press.
I made a pact with myself that if the photos were sent that I would kill myself. I finally figured out that they wouldn’t send them other than anonymously, which would discredit them in the press, so I held firm, but it dramatically reminded me of my vulnerability. I pulled back and became less visible. I developed a persona of the harmonica-playing cowboy who was a grand strategist who said, “Aw, shucks, I don’t really want to do any of those interviews.” A lot of us kept behind the scenes those days, in Hollywood, in politics, just close enough to get a taste of what it was we really wanted, but not in visible danger.
Murray: How do you understand the growth of the Gay rights movement over time, both politically and socially?
Mixner: Chris, that is a question that could take hours to answer. But I remember, growing up in the 1950’s, it wasn’t unusual, for a family who discovered their child was Gay,
This is just an excerpt from this issue of White Crane. We are a reader-supported journal and need you to subscribe to keep this conversation going. So to read more from this wonderful issue SUBSCRIBE to White Crane. Thanks!
David Mixner blogs regularly at www.davidmixner.com
This is Christopher Murray’s first contribution to White Crane as part of a collection of interviews for a book he is writing entitled Brave New Faggot. Murray writes regularly for Gay City News in New York and is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist in private practice in New York City. He can be contacted at email@example.com or at www.christophermurray.org. He is a member of the White Crane Gay Men’s Health Leadership Academy.
Portrait of David Mixner, Oil On Canvas, 2002, by George Towne. Courtesy of the artist.
Friday, April 18, 2008
Telling Sakia Gunn's Story
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
GAY CITY NEWS
Director and producer Charles Brack is in the final, frenzied stages of completing a feature-length documentary about the 2003 bias crime murder of 15-year-old Newark resident Sakia Gunn. Media coverage of Gunn's murder was paltry compared with that of Matthew Shepherd -- though Gay City News was a notable exception -- raising questions about the way race and gender play out in discussions about bias crimes against queer people.
Brack, 48, who is called Chas by his friends, grew up in Chicago and has youthful memories of the disorder during the 1968 Democratic National Convention there. The June day he left Ohio's Antioch College in 1983 with a degree in communications, he drove through the night to arrive in New York for the Gay Pride celebration.
Brack worked for the New York City Commission on Human Rights in its Lesbian and Gay Discrimination Unit and later the AIDS Discrimination Unit as a human rights investigator, eventually becoming an associate producer in the Education Department.
In 1992, he joined Gay Men's Health Crisis where he was the co-coordinator of the Media Unit and associate producer of the "Living with AIDS" cable news magazine program. In 1996, he returned to the Commission on Human Rights, in its Community Relations Bureau, where he worked closely with the police on bias cases.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: Who was Sakia Gunn?
CHARLES BRACK: Sakia was a 15-year-old so-called "aggressive" [defined on the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's website as a homosexual woman of color who dresses in masculine attire], living in Newark, New Jersey, who was killed by a gay basher. Sakia and her friends were returning to their homes after hanging out in Greenwich Village when they were approached by men making sexual advances. Words were exchanged and a fight ensued. Sakia was stabbed and bled out on the streets of downtown Newark. The assailant turned himself in to authorities and is currently serving an approximately 20-year sentence.
CM: What was the impact on you when you first heard about the murder?
CB: When I saw the report on television, the picture of Sakia said more to me than the newscaster. It was clear to me that there was a gender and/ or sexual orientation slant to the story that was not being reported. The person that the media described was a 15-year-old black girl, but I saw a 15-year-old black boy. I knew that there was more to be revealed.
CM: When did you decide to make the documentary?
CB: I was approached by a colleague about doing the film, so I jumped at the chance to do what I do, which is to try to lift up black LGBT people. I was the co-founder of Lavender Light Gospel choir, a charter member and ordained clergy in Unity Fellowship Church --NYC, as well as involved in other community-based organizations in New York City. I don't know, I just love my people.
CM: How is a documentary going to impact the course of events?
CB: I hope that LGBT youth will know that my generation is watching. Although we've been through a different struggle, we care about them. I hope that the film will signal to the larger LGBT and black communities, respectively, that they are not disposable. I hope that Sakia's name will become widely recognizable and that her death was not in vain.
I believe even in this time of morally and ethically declining media coverage of important issues, that media is still a powerful tool for social change, if wielded well. I have learned a lot about the issues that LGBT youth face on a daily basis. I thought that we'd come farther. Sadly, obviously this is not the case.
CM: At what point in the process is the film?
CB: We are in the post-production phase of the film, meaning that we have a rough cut. We hope to be finished in time for upcoming film festivals and New York City's Pride month. It's been a long road but well worth the travel.
CM: How can people support the film?
CB: Donations always help! Just a few more dollars will allow us to actually pay the very generous editor, who has been working for pennies to take out any audio glitches, which can occur when filming off set. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of money out there for this kind of work, but we have managed to get this far. I want the film to serve Sakia's memory well. It needs to look good and sound good in order to get noticed in the vortex of pejorative drivel that is passed off as good representation of black LGBT people.
CM: How did your interest in human rights come about?
CB: I have always been interested in diversity and social change from the time that my little Baptist church on the South Side of Chicago started visiting synagogues and nunneries. I can remember my first Seder at age 10. I guess that explains my past proclivity for Jewish men.
I knew that there was a world outside of the ghetto where I grew up. But I had no idea that that world would be so hostile to a little sissy boy with thick glasses who was accused of being uppity because I spoke proper English. So, all of my educational and employment choices have reflected that initial introduction to multiculturalism.
CM: What do you think LGBT people need to know about human rights and bias crime in our own community?
CB: We need not believe the press on our community. The fight is far from over. Even if we win the fight for gay marriage, it will not be a social panacea to cure all the remaining social plagues inside as well as outside of the LGBT community, like homophobia, sexism, transphobia, and racism. We need to know that most incidents of bias go unreported. We need to know that simply being gay is not a point of departure for our quest for diversity, we still have to do the work to make our community unified.
CM: What else do you have going on?
CB: I am currently working at Third World Newsreel as the operations director. Third World Newsreel is an alternative media arts organization that fosters the creation, appreciation, and dissemination of independent film and video by and about people-of-color and social justice issues.
CM: Do you think you could have been friends with Sakia Gunn?
CB: For many years when I was a kid, I was mistaken for a girl. Let's just say that I was not the butchest boy on the block. So, yes, I think we would have been running in the same circles.
I too grew up in a big city that did not have a clearly established place for black LGBT youth. But like Sakia and many others, we created locations and activities where we could just be ourselves. Our relationships were valued and solid. We cleaved to each other. Although it was a very different time when I was 15, we still encountered the same prejudices that queer youth of color face today.
CM: Are there personal reasons why this murder moved you?
CB: When I was young I even faced the disdain of my father, brother, and community because of my obvious feminine ways and appearance. It was a rough and simultaneously joyous time. Thank God for the Black Church! Despite their effort to cloak us, we are in force there.
But that little thing inside me, that I guess some would say was my spirit, would not be squelched. It's the same spirit that made Sakia and her friends strike back at their assailants.
CM: Can you explain the tangled interplay of homophobia, sexism, transphobia, and racism in Sakia's story?
CB: It's as simple as the cards being stacked against you. For as with many minority groups, the struggle is more complicated. But, being a man of faith I now know that these so called burdens have only proven to make me stronger.
So, for instance, while the straight black community and the white gay community stand on the precipice of the ongoing discourse about who is the most tortured protected class, black LGBT folk exist in a crevasse where we know that none of us is free until all of us are free.
I tire of the question, "Which is worse: being called a nigger or a faggot?"
For more information about Charles Brack's documentary film about the murder of Sakia Gunn, visit sakiagunnfilmproject.com
Friday, March 28, 2008
By: CHRISTOPHER MURRAY
The artist and documentarian James Rauchman, 55, has been doing a colossal series of work about gay life in Havana, Cuba. What began as the expression of a sexual obsession has grown into a major series of works in different forms - oil, watercolor, film - that embraces the kaleidoscopic contradictions of gay people's experiences in Cuba.
Born off Exit 10 on the turnpike in Metuchen, New Jersey, Rauchman received an MFA from Columbia in 1987. It was there where he met his partner of more than 20 years, the Barnard biologist Paul Hertz, with whom he lives in an art-filled apartment on the Upper West Side.
"We were introduced by a British gay rabbi," Rauchman said, obviously delighting in the transgressiveness.
Rauchman's work has been seen at Marian Locks Gallery in Philadelphia, at CRG Gallery in Chelsea, in the 2005 Havana Biennial, as well as in a special showing organized by the pop duo Ashford and Simpson at their Upper West Side restaurant Sugarbar.
His sensibility is defiantly gay, and sometimes graphic, but the work always maintains an intense sense of location and context that complicates a viewer's expectations about the figures depicted. His newest project, a documentary about the traditional Cuban religious holiday honoring Saint Lazarus, weaves a complex and moving portrait of a gay flower seller whose wares follow a torturous path to an altar.
Shortly before Fidel Castro's official retirement from the Cuban presidency, Rauchman paused from editing the new documentary to discuss his work.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: What drew you to making art in Cuba?
JAMES RAUCHMAN: I went to Cuba for the first time in 1997, following Paul, who was working there with some Cuban scientists. I had recently had an exhibition of Riverside Park landscape paintings with the New York City Parks Department, which represented about three years' work. Suddenly I was feeling stuck and was thrashing around looking for some new subject matter, when Cuba came up and grabbed me by the neck. Cuba to me is like a mirror image of the United States - everything is reversed there in terms of official and even societal priorities and I find this utterly fascinating.
CM: How much of your Cuba work is about gay themes?
JR: I did a series of about 40 oil paintings detailing my ill-fated infatuation with a male hustler there. It helped me work out the feelings, so to speak. Since then I've done a series of watercolor portraits of all sorts of people, not gay-themed, and have made a couple of short documentary films that are about spiritual and economic issues in the society.
CM: What have you learned about gay life in Cuba?
JR: I've learned that, like everything else in Cuba, gay life is one big mass of contradictions. On the one hand, societal mores are about 40 years behind enlightened Western understanding of gay people - especially in the countryside. On the other hand, one night in Havana I was invited to a party at a public school where they were celebrating National Teacher's Day by presenting a lip-synching drag show for the pleasure of the local teachers and their children. Strange, but true.
CM: Is the role of art and artists different in a place where there is a dictator?
JR: Here are my biased oversimplifications: In Cuba there are official artists, and there are independent artists, and their roles are different from one another. The official artists do work that is Cuba-centric and nationalistic, and are promoted by the government in the official media, the only media there is. Meanwhile, the independent artists who have been university-trained along the lines of Western conceptualism, and are talented and clever, are scrambling for international exposure, just like artists everywhere.
The totalitarian Cuban cultural bureaucracy is very sophisticated in that they have figured out a way to allow, and even encourage, a kind of free artistic expression, including cultural, political critiques, among a certain segment of their artistic elite, which is available for export, but is not readily accessible at home. Thus they can keep a tight lid on their own population, while appearing to be more liberal than they are from abroad.
CM: Do Cuban gays think life will be better when Fidel Castro is dead?
JR: As I hear about it, there is already a lot of official support for gay people, through the agency of the daughter of Fidel's Castro's brother and [then] Acting President Raul Castro. She is known as an academic sexologist and has spoken out on TV for all sorts of LGBT rights. Too bad the average person has no civil rights to begin with. I think all Cubans in some way wish that that situation might change soon, at least when Fidel dies.
CM: A lot of your work is autobiographical in one way or another. Is it challenging to be in your work as well as creating it?
JR: On the one hand, I think that all artists use their lives as raw material in some way. I mean, what else do you have? But the specific challenge of representing myself, as an image, as a person, in a painting, comes out of a need, which I think some other gay people may share, to compensate for a sense of unreality I felt about myself when growing up. I think I have painted myself as a way of retrieving myself after having blocked myself out, or not accepting myself, for many years.
CM: You've been making documentaries about life in Cuba lately. What drew you to that form?
JR: I love what's going on with the art of documentary film these days. I realized when I was doing the series of paintings about my experiences with the hustler that it was sequenced like a story board for a film, and finally I realized I just had to pick up a camera and try to tell a real life story in that way, in that medium, in order to keep growing as an artist. It was especially exciting to have my first short documentary shown at last year's Woodstock Film Festival.
CM: Your partner Paul Hertz and you have a wonderful collection of contemporary art. When you look at what you and other artists are creating, how do you understand how art is changing now?
JR: Um, can I dodge that question? Paul and I collect what we like and we have reasons for liking what we like, but to try and explain those reasons is like trying to explain your whole life in one sentence. I don't understand how art is changing now, besides becoming more technological. I always thought that the best art was about something that doesn't change.
CM: If you could change something about your life as an artist, what would it be?
JR: Ah, good, now we're getting to the funny questions. Listen, it's been such a struggle getting to a state of basic, artistic self-acceptance, I wouldn't want to be seen being churlish, wishing for something as mediocre as material success. Next question!
CM: If you could have sex with a famous artist, living or dead, who would you pick and why?
JR: My kinky, inquisitive side wants to say Toulouse-Lautrec, but based on the pears and apples, I have to conclude that sex with Cezanne must have been very satisfying. But since you'd probably have to get both of those guys drunk to have sex with them, I'll just sprint ahead to Matthew Barney based on his looks, since he seems to be game for anything.