LGBTay-Tay

When Taylor Swift gave a surprise performance of her new anti-hate song, You Need to Calm Down, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the modern LGTBTQ movement at the very place where it started – NYC’s Stonewall Inn – it made an impact.

After all, the 29 year-old singer/songwriter is one of the best-selling recording artists of all-time with over 50 million album sales and 150 million in single digital downloads.  She’s won 10 Grammys, was included in Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songwriters back in 2015 and has appeared three times in Time’s 100 most influential people, including 2019.

She’s a goddamn icon

Whether you are fan, frenemy, enemy or simply indifferent, it is undeniable that once Tay-Tay sets her sights on, or music to, a subject she carries an indefinable weight towards changing hearts and, more importantly, minds on said subject.

As a gay man of a certain age I do not take any support for granted, especially hers, and finally understand that each small and large gesture are essential building blocks forward.

A TS lyric like, shade never made anybody less gay in a song heard internationally more times than any of us likely ever will be, can’t move the needle alone.  Still, it can certainly be the single straw that breaks the back of hate in all sorts of different people for all sorts of different reasons.

YAY TAY TAY

At this point it might be worth remembering that it was on the day Judy Garland died that a group of trans people, gay men and drag queens stood up to police harassment en masse at the Stonewall Inn and birthed the modern gay liberation movement.

The fact that they rioted in the streets of Greenwich Village for several days, refusing to be targeted where they lived, did not happen just because a gay icon was gone, as the history books like to simplify.

However, it would not be overreach to write that when that final straw dropped on that specific day, a bunch of us were extremely pissed off, much more so than usual.  Just like you don’t throw a lit match onto a gas station or sass your Mom and Dad just after they’ve gotten home from a double shift at work. There are limits to what any of us will tolerate on a very bad day.

Even Joan has limits #nowirehangers

You can’t blame it on the sass or the match or the day or the shift.   It takes the combination of some or all of those elements (and more) to fuel the uncontrollable fire that was sure to come once all the kindling fell into place in exactly the right (or wrong) way.

It was in thinking about all of the above that it became undeniable that a week had just passed where all three of the new mainstream films and TV series I had just consumed for the first time centered specifically on members of the LGBTQ community.  This would have been unthinkable just two or three decades ago not because my tastes had changed but due to the fact that no one was making this much openly gay content back then for mass consumption.

Not even Charles Nelson Reilly was technically “out”

There was Halston, a feature length documentary on the gay designer of Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hat, Liza Minnelli’s sparkly stage outfits and just about some part of every trendy female fashionista’s wardrobe back in the 1970s.

Then scrolling on Netflix was Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story.  This was a hard look at the celebratory life and tragic death of young gay man credited as the greatest makeup artist who ever lived.  A guy who worked with every female supermodel of his era, including Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, and then segued to work with the likes of Cher, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand, Gwyneth Paltrow and Andie McDowell.

The master at work

This was all before branching out to create best-selling books and makeup lines and

dedicating his own time and money to mentor other young, forgotten gay kids, many of whom came from the same small homophobic home towns he himself had grown up in.

Watching his adopted father’s account of how the young Kevin had to drop out of high school at the age of 15 after several of the school bullies tried to run him down with their truck was enough to make any viewer question if anything has really changed at all.

Of course, this would be foolish thinking since his very own path to international fame as a proudly out gay man occurred years after the Stonewall Riots and the rise of a very un-publicly gay designer like Halston.

and certainly after Keith Haring’s “Heritage of Pride” Logo from the 80s

It is on the wings of countless real life people that Kevin was able to rise just a little bit more and the memorable gay characters of contemporary fiction emerge.  That is why watching Netflix’s just released 10-part limited streaming series, Tales of the City, based on Armistead Maupin’s best-selling books of 1970s, 80s and beyond San Francisco, seems a perfect cultural bridge to a 2019 public, yet now somehow almost routine, LGBTQ ally like Taylor Swift.I can recall devouring those Tales novels when I first came out because it was the first time I saw the gay and straight worlds melded together into the one more integrated, albeit messier, world that I lived in.

BONUS Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis together again!

Sure, it was a somewhat idealized world but it spoke to my reality closer than anything I had come across up to that point, straight or gay.  Good as the early PBS miniseries (based on the first two books) was back in the early 1990s I can recall how disappointing it felt to have it viewed as both exotic and controversial when it was first broadcast during the AIDS era.   So much so that the PBS network declined to do any more movies/shows based on the next books, which were finally produced by Showtime but gained far less attention.

For those of us still around, and for so many others, it is therefore a partial triumph of both endurance and history that the gay-themed issues tackled in the latest Tales on Netflix are today barely controversial – only merely reflective of where the world is now.  Far more potent is how the middle-aged (Note: ahem) characters of my generation co-exist with the younger out(er) and proud(er) generation after them and how they all grapple with the full history of those left from the still older generation that came before either of them saw the light of day.

Kinda like the feeling I get when I see this guy out on the trail with his husband #PeteforAmerica

It is in this more full depiction of the many inroads and detours taken in the full path to get here that these newest Tales really soars.  This is done through expert performances from the likes of Olympia Dukakis, Laura Linney and Ellen Page as trans, straight and gay/bisexual characters, respectively, of different ages whose many stylized stories not only naturally but casually intersect with a core truth of not only how it was but how we would want it to be.  Perhaps, in some ways, how it now is for all of us.  Or, well, more of us.

This new Tales miniseries is memory piece of today that is built on the past but exists clearly in the present as it consistently looks towards the future.  It is not unlike what Taylor Swift does when she comes fully out as a straight LGBTQ ally in 2019 and uses her celebrity and talents to boldly admonish all current and future homophobes in a fun but clearly commercial pop song pointedly entitled You Better Calm Down.

Taylor Swift – “You Need to Calm Down”

A New/Old Golden Age?

Art, historically, is always at its best and most provocative when it can be in opposition to something – when the artist disagrees with the government she lives in. – Hanya Yanagihara, Editor in Chief, T Magazine

This week the New York Times published a special issue of its Style Magazine entitled — 1981-1983 New York: 36 Months that Changed the Culture.

Among the many articles, stories and sidebars is an accompanying 12-minute video of interviews at a photo shoot of 21 actors who had their breakthrough moments in the city as young artists at the time.

Click to watch the video!

There are lots of familiar names, many of them now stars, all of them respected at their craft not only onstage in New York but often in film and television.   Not to mention, one of them is now even running to be the next governor of New York.

Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick , Cynthia Nixon, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Willem Dafoe, Nathan Lane, Harvey Fierstein, Ed Harris, Loretta Devine, Joan Allen, Elizabeth McGovern, Mercedes Ruehl, Victor Garber, Amanda Plummer, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Michael Cerveris, Mia Katigbak, Stephen Bogardus and John Kelly.

It was impossible to know at the time who in the above group would:

1- Create roles so indelible that they’d live on forever in the pop culture landscape.

2- Become rich and famous beyond their (and our) wildest dreams.

My face when I think about SJP’s wallet. Yes, we’re looking at you shoe lady!

3- Continue to be doing avant-garde, cutting edge work so many decades later.

4- Change your life with a single performance or film appearance or, perish the thought back then if you were a true artiste, weekly TV show.

And perhaps, most importantly (at least for them):

5- Survive long enough to attend or even be wanted at a photo shoot/class reunion in the year 2018 organized by the NY Times about the city’s once-in-a-era cultural scene.

It is easy to look back and write about an iconically fertile or low period in artistic and political history. But it is one mean feat of supernatural ESP to know that this is what’s going on in your particular time at the time and be absolutely right about it.

Amen, Andy Bernard. Amen.

The truth is, everyone thinks that both the time they’re living in and the work they’re doing is important, artistic, relevant and potentially world and/or life-changing. Either that or they assume there is nothing at all important about it – certainly nothing people would ever look back on decades later in wonderment or nostalgia.

Of course, both viewpoints are incorrect. No one really knows which times are or will be relevant to other generations and how or in what way. Sure, you’ve got gut feelings about stuff, especially in 1980s NY where people on the artistic scene slowly began dying around you from an unnamed plague. But in that moment, it isn’t easy to fully realize how time will remember it or if you and/or your generation’s work will live on or be forgotten. What is even more likely is that you won’t be right about it.

OK maybe we had a good idea about this guy #legend

Cases in point:

— I remember working with a 17 year old Cynthia Nixon on a little known Robert Altman film, OC & Stiggs, in the early eighties and thinking: She’s so sweet and smart, not to mention natural in front of the camera – I hope the biz of show doesn’t eat her alive. I never dreamed I’d see her on Broadway a year later seducing a major movie star onstage right before my eyes, go on to win two Tonys, then follow it all by becoming a female role model/TV star on Sex in the City.  And now a run for governor? Are you kidding???

Oh she’s the real thing alright!

— As the arts editor of my college radio station I got tickets to see this off-Broadway play called Vanities in the seventies where a very young and very unknown Kathy Bates played one of three friends whose lives we trace though high school, college and post graduation. She was fun AND sort of sad simultaneously, the kind of fantastic NY actress you knew would work forever but would probably never be a star because, well, the business…SUCKED!!

Which it didn’t because in the eighties she became a local Broadway legend playing a suicidal daughter in night, Mother and in the early nineties became an Oscar winning, axe-wielding movie star in Misery.

And then win an Emmy for playing a HEAD in American Horror Story

The latter was, by the way, five years after I had worked on the movie version of ‘night, Mother and was tasked to arrange a private pre-release screening for Ms. Bates so she could take in the work done by Sissy Spacek in the role SHE had originated. Again, I thought, this business…SUCKS! Which, of course, it didn’t once again and, in fact, only showed how wrong one (okay, I) can be – TWICE. And in two different decades.

— Then there was the time in early eighties NY where I saw Harvey Fierstein playing a gay, Jewish drag queen in his play Torch Song Trilogy and considered just how wrong I was a third time (ok, maybe that was #2) about what could and could not be accomplished in a business that, at the end of the day, actually might not at all always totally…SUCK.

Oh.. hello, Mother

This might be hard for younger people today to imagine but the idea of a gay guy from the boroughs playing a gay guy from the boroughs in a play he had himself, a gay guy from the boroughs, written about the relationship a gay guy from the boroughs has with an impossibly closeted gay guy he’s in love with and his own impossibly know-it-all Jewish mother seemed…well… impossible at the time. Until it wasn’t. And never would be again (Note: Especially for this gay guy from the boroughs) thanks to people like “Harvey,” who worked in cheap, roach infested, barely standing stages far away from the harsh glare of world-changing and international recognition.

You can never be great – in life or in art – if you’re forever thinking about being great or are sure you will never be great because the odds are against you and the times you live in just don’t allow it.

Also avoid self aggrandizing

All you can really do is put everything you have into your work and your life (both of those being art) in the best way you can, revel in each action and task with as much enthusiasm as you can and – hope for the best.

I still have to remind myself about living in the moment and enjoying each task at hand, unconcerned with result and I saw most of the above unlikely actor/stars in their iconic performances all those years ago in the early eighties.

I was killin’ it and didn’t even know it!

Of course these days it sometimes takes journalistic behemoths like the NY Times to remind us that the eighties – a decade many of my peers consider hideous beyond words because of its ethos of Greed is Good, big hair and the AIDS plague – did indeed have its moments in hindsight.

That is among many other things we depend on them to remind us of daily these days. Which is the subject of another story. Though the lesson is the same – stay focused and do the work as best you can – even if you think no one is listening and despite what you perceive your odds are for success.  Because the future – yours and all of ours – just might surprise you — and us – if you (nee We) just keep going.

Nina Hagen – New York New York (1983)