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glbt new orleans history

Volume 15/Issue 23

Madame John Dodt's Legacy #18

by Jon Newlin, NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana

Now that Pride is but a memory-for this year at least (and how come no one ever cites Norma Shearer at the end of The Women, when Rosalind Russell says, "Mary Haines, what about your pride?" and Norma, in that "clamped-down hairdo" as George Cukor referred to it, tells her "Pride is a luxury a woman in love can't afford!" and sails away to her destiny-wandering husband, horrid little Virginia Weidler, snoopy servants, clamped-down hair)-and now that poor Toni Pizanie's house ketched afire.... What is it about Pride celebrations and the 2000 block of Royal Street? The old Impact office in the same block was a victim of spontaneous combustion-all that heat and no potatoes, as the song has it-just before a June Pride, and I well recall such details as the phone call from Doug Massey one frosty June night and figuring that since Miss Letson was at the Phoenix, there was no reason I shouldn't stay home and wait till the NOFD had done their worst and pick through the ruins the next day, which we did, my dear, like ragpickers after the Hamburg bombings...but anyway, now that Pride is just a memory, it might be as good a time as any to discuss The-Shot-Heard-Round-The-World syndrome.

Shots-Heard-Round-The-World are those decisive, history-making-and-unmaking events, oh, you know, like the defeat of the Spanish Armada, or Mohammed going from Mecca to Medina, or Commodore Perry getting Japan to open up, or the invention of the push-up bra, okay? In what passes for gay history, Stonewall is the great defining shot-heard-round-the-world (it wasn't) and we've had decades to work on transforming this minor skirmish into the Battle of Hastings or the Siege of the Toledo Alcazar or day number three at Gettysburg (it wasn't). To lapse into hysterectomy for a moment, it isn't events that are especially important but their long-term consequences. Only madmen and the most outre sort of visionaries want drastic change immediately; history and the natural sciences, not to mention any version of Back Street that you'd care to mention, indicate that important things happen over long periods, frequently longer than one person's piffling lifetime (unless you're Irene Dunne or Susan Hayward or Margaret Sullavan in Back Street). The exact words slip my mind, ragazzi, but I seem to remember Grandma telling me something about forests and trees about now....

Back to Stonewall, which has been glamorized and historicized and myhtologized out of any and all proportion; we have movies about it and we have Edmund White novels about it and we have scholarly studies by Martin Duberman about it, and seldom is heard a discouraging word about it; and we've placed it at the center of the queer movement. It belongs there about as much as the Storming of the Bastille belongs at the center of the French Revolution-remember? The mob busted into the place and there were, what? a dozen people inside? Stonewall being celebrated is a magnificent triumph of irrational identity politics for a movement that has shunted aside and marginalized the very people who were at Stonewall: drag queens, persons of color, Hispanic sissies....

In a recent anthology of essays with the distinctively uninviting title, "Gay Men At The Millennium," there's a wonderful, cranky, contrarian essay by the novelist John Weir called "Going In"-and if I have to explain that to you, you shouldn't be reading this-in which he says the queer movement is "focused on theatrics rather than on discourse. We want to be entertained and flattered, not criticized.... The irony of gay liberation is that it has made room in the mainstream only for those white men who are already privileged, and disinclined to share their wealth. This is the charge that many Christian fundamentalists make against us: that we are a bunch of affluent men who think our homosexuality shouldn't interfere with our God-given right to rule the world. Fundamentalists aren't exactly strangers to feeling both martyred and entitled, of course. Maybe that's why, in vilifying us, they're partly right."

The gay activist community in this very city, for instance, reacts to criticism of even the mildest variety from within, and especially from without, the ranks in much the same way that rattlesnakes react to being stepped on. It reminds one of those excessively touchy Jews who take any criticism of Israel-implied or not-as anti-Semitism of the most virulent Protocols-of-the-Elders-of-Zion variety. Suggest even gently that the Middle East "process" as they laughingly call it on the news is a two-way street and that both Arabs and Jews could try a bit harder, and you're stuck up there in the bleachers with Goebbels and Eichmann and Mengele and Leni Riefenstahl. The complaint that the People Who Do Things is the same old cobweb-encrusted musty list of names we've been seeing since Lassie was a pup has a genuine basis in fact; it is the same list of names, for the most part, and we are all in their debt, again for the most part, but there's always been something in their attitude toward "those wonderful little people...out the dark," as Gloria Swanson once put it, that is a bit elitist, a bit obsessed with their own identity as leaders, and a bit Us-vs.-Them (and since we are Them, this can be as hard to take as a dose of paregoric). The English, who are up front about the inequity of their social and class systems-they don't do much of anything about them but be upfront about them, but that presumably constitutes a start-have a cruelly exact expression for this, derived from sports: "Gentlemen Vs. Players." And most of us are just Players.

In a way they have a right to be, ah, thin-skinned. After all, this is Fun City with about as much tradition of, or interest in, progressive politics as it has in clam chowder or cross-country skiing. Queer activists here fight an uphill battle and take great umbrage at the fact that they have to fight it-like they wouldn't have to elsewhere-but the fact remains that we have more B-drinkers and illusionists and drunkards than we have people interested in liberal social issues. Perhaps they-the activists, not the illusionists or drunkards-qualify for some sort of premature beatification or canonization just on this basis. Rather like the krewe roster of Comus or Proteus, the list of queer activists in the city has swelled slightly but not by all that, for instance, just because I have to bring this up in connection with what I said much above, the number of people who claim to have been at the Stonewall Inn on That Fateful Night. This number is as vast and as spurious as those pieces of the True Cross that circulated among the more gullible devout in the Middle Ages, and just as you could build a fair-sized office building with the pieces of the T.C. (not Jones), so the Stonewall has mysteriously expanded in memory to the size of St. Peter's in Rome or perhaps the biggest soccer stadium in Brazil.

We don't have a Stonewall in New Orleans. Our Shot-Heard-Round-The World would have to be the Anita Bryant protests of donkey's-years ago, and that occasion looks now like a bit of a hangover from the much-maligned Sixties. Who now would have the heart, or lack of one, to complain about any poison that issued from the blunted fangs of that washed-up old Bible-thumping has-been, Anita Bryant? To take her seriously now is to be really cruel to her. We might exercise a bit of that Christian caritas that the Christian Right seems to lack wholesale. Still, those were strange and stirring days, possibly precisely because they were a clear echo, in style if not substance, of the anti-war and women's movements that preceded them.

Fran Leibowitz said recently in Vanity Fair that homosexuals were the biggest squares in America because they were the only people who still wanted to get married or join the Navy. She's a clever woman, but I think this is a hopelessly snotty attitude. I certainly don't want my union blessed, I don't even want a union except for twenty or thirty minutes at a time, and Fort Bragg or Parris Island are places I hope stay as remote in my experience as Siberia or Mozambique.

I think assimilation is hideously wrong and I don't mind being thought an expendable eccentric for harboring such feelings; but I hope I'd never be quite so vulgar and over-bearing as to insist that other people do what I wanted them to do-except for those twenty-or-thirty-minute unsanctified unions, maybe. Just as I don't much want to be dictated to. (Judge Richard Posner, a Chicago appeals judge and lit'ry scholar, and one of the few conservatives I admire wholeheartedly, said it very well in The New Yorker recently, and hey, my father was a judge, so I don't argue with The Bench: "Government has a role in encouraging people to be law-abiding, but when it gets down to trying to get people to like each other, to change people's values and make them more tolerant-this whole notion of shaping people's preferences through government-I don't like it particularly. I think it's both paternalistic and likely to be ineffective, but to the extent that it is effective, it's likely to be totalitarian."

This might give the (correct) impression that as moral law, I don't think The Golden Rule can be improved upon, but just now you'll have to excuse me. I've got to slip out of this cassock, it's just killing me, and my feet are full of splinters from standing on this damned soapbox for so long. Besides I have to go sneak just another look at Miss Scafide's little profile in that Gambit article, what was it called? Oh yes, Fatuous Under Forty or something like that? There's nothing beats a good laugh as a late afternoon pick-me-up.

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