Sunday Nibble #92: Hiding in plain sight

On the connection between the arts, the LGBTQ community, and how the second use for any new tech is porn.

It has taken basically forever for those who are not white, Christian, heteronormative, cis-gender people to be centered in any way, shape, or form in popular culture, especially in mass media like movies and TV.

Although there were several early attempts in the late 70s — q.v. Billy Crystal in Soap — they tended to be campy stereotypes and while, granted, every character in Soap was a campy stereotype, Crystal’s Jodie Dallas was dragged through the indignity of suddenly deciding he was “transexual” after being dumped by his shady bisexual boyfriend — “because every gay man really wants to be a woman, right?” as late 70s logic went.

Eventually, Jodie settled down with (and knocked up) a woman, although I think their baby turned out to be the antichrist or something. Or maybe that was the priest who had an affair.

Yeah, not the greatest of times there, eh? It really wasn’t until the early 90s, when people like Scott Thompson from The Kids in the Hall just said “fuck it” and came out, RuPaul broke through the taffeta ceiling, and it was only real when Ellen (not a nice person) came out in real life and on her sitcom.

Boom — the 90s came to an end. You’re gay? Cool. Here’s your boarding pass to the 21st century. Enjoy!

Except, maybe, not so much. There was still a lot of shit to deal with. But what about all the shit that came before?

Once the media gained the ability to record and preserve performances, a certain hierarchy emerged. Now keep one thing in mind. The second use of any new technology is porn. Period.

Some dude invents cave painting as early movies and uses firelight to make it look like a herd of elk is running across the cave wall? Cool.

One cave over, someone else has already figured out how to use the same techniques to create erotic dances featuring everyone’s favorite big-breasted fertility goddess, as well as the first cave-painting feature called Threeway: Hunter, Hunter, Gatherer.

At every stage of the development of art, it really only happened because some dude was trying to figure out a more realistic way to paint titties or dick or both.

Once photography happened, you just know that half of every professional shot taken was some guy convincing his girlfriend, mistress, fiancée, wife, or best friend to strip off and pose with the good stuff.

Film? Yeah, in those early days for every legitimate short or Great Train Robbery, there were at least ten “Millie Gets Railed” or “Horny Farmhands” or “When the Parson Came to Call.”

Hell, in the very early days of legitimate film, full frontal nudity was very common, and it didn’t end until the early 1930s (right after the introduction of sound) when the spoilsports clamped down with the Hayes Code, which didn’t end until after it was declared unconstitutional in 1952 and was finally abandoned in 1968, when the MPAA started its ratings system.

Still, when the Code ended, mainstream Hollywood really didn’t go into full-on porn. The closest they got was Midnight Cowboy, to this date the only X-Rated movie to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, but to be honest, nowadays it’s a very, very mild R, and the only reason it was so shocking back then was that it depicted (gasp!) male homosexuality because it was about a guy who came from Texas to New York to be a male escort to rich women, but was not above turning the occasional male trick on the side.

But he wasn’t gay, dammit!

The X-rating quickly ended, though, because the MPAA had never trademarked that letter and the porn industry co-opted it to prove that you’d be seeing the real thing. It was eventually replaced with NC-17, but since that’s box office poison because, again, prudes in the industry, it is rarely if ever issued, and most moviemakers would rather release their films as “Unrated.”

Let’s get back to that hierarchy of art again. While porn is the second use of any new art or technology, the older any art or technology is the less likely it is to be censored.

Now when you think of naked art, what comes to mind?

Most likely you’re thinking either Greek or Roman statues or a ton of paintings from the Renaissance onward — the former which influenced the latter — but a lot of which nowadays are pretty much a part of the curriculum for, at the least, high school students studying art, not to mention being common décor in public spaces.

I mean — would a reproduction of the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David be all that shocking anywhere nowadays? Really, no — although some quarters still seem to have a big issue with the fact that David has a dick.

Next up came literature, as in the written word, prose, poetry, and sometimes theatre scripts. And this also goes way back. Hell, just read certain bits of the King James Bible if you want pure porn.

Later on, when serialized novels became popular entertainment because people had nothing better to do than gather together and read out loud to each other, the most popular works were also very obscene and pornographic. Don’t believe me? Read something like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabelais to your family and see how long it takes you all to be laughing so hard you’re all crying while also marveling at how filthy it all is while yet being relatable.

Literature is doing and saying things that other art forms can only imagine until we get to the 20th century, and then the subject matter becomes even more daring because, surprise surprise, certain people are working in the field in disproportionate numbers.

In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about mostly gay men (and some lesbians) who have gravitated to working in all areas of theatre in the 1920s in big cities, mainly New York and the touring circuit, and this is where they feel safe.

They are actors, dancers, playwrights, set, lighting, and costume designers, stylists, make-up artists, dressers, assistant directors, choreographers, and so on.

These are mostly not considered to be “masculine” professions because, really, did these jobs even exist outside of big cities?

But it all came together in New York with the unwritten rule: If you don’t stick out too much, you can be as gay as you want behind the scenes and we welcome you, and you get to go on tour with the shows as well.

Of course, not welcome everywhere. When Mae West’s play The Drag opened in Connecticut in 1927, there was instant scandal, and she wound up going to jail for it. Given the title, yes, the play was about exactly what you think it was about — a closeted gay socialite trapped in a loveless marriage.

Mae was an ally even then, and it’s no wonder that her biggest fans until the end of her career and long life were gay men. Of course, she cast actual gay men in The Drag, finding them through open calls at a gay bar in the Village — this at a time when the acting unions banned gay men from having speaking parts on stage.

Irony much?

Apparently, audiences loved the play when it opened. The problem were the prudes and bluenoses who condemned it.

But as long as it wasn’t put out blatantly on the stage, people were too naïve to notice, and so the gay underground went on. The stage in particular, but movie musicals as well, provided perfect cover for all of these young, queer folk. after all, it was an era in which unmarried people did not have sex, ever!

This was partly due to religious ethics and morality and all that bullshit, of course, but the real practical reasons were that truly effective birth control didn’t exist — there was no pill, and at the time, vasectomies were pretty much only used for eugenics — that is, to prevent “undesirables” from being able to reproduce.

No self-respecting red-blooded American man, after all, would willingly give up the ability to make babies, married or not. And while abortions were available, they were still mostly illegal, so only performed in underground clinics or by very expensive doctors.

You’ve probably heard the term “back-alley abortion,” and this was the era for it, although women had other methods, good and bad, like douching with Coca Cola right after sex.

As a kid, I remember my uncle telling a story about an unmarried women who’d gotten pregnant but couldn’t afford the abortion doctor. A friend told her, “Gladys, here’s what you do…” (Women in these stories are always named Gladys.)

“Gladys,” the friend explains, “You drink half a fifth of whisky, then climb up on the kitchen table — make sure the chairs are out of the way. Roll off and land on the floor, and voila. No more baby.”

In my uncle’s version of the story, Gladys downed half that fifth, got up on the kitchen table and rolled off and, as he put it, “She broke her leg but still had the damn baby.”

But, like the clergy, being in a Broadway Chorus was perfect cover — fraternizing between the chorus boys and girls was just not allowed because they were professionals.

Naturally, this left plenty of time for same-sex fraternizing (sororizing?) behind the scenes. And, as we all know, it’s perfectly innocent when two boys or two girls past college age but unmarried live together, right?

And then, gays began showing up in films, although deeply coded. They were often depicted by somewhat prissy actors, but never in sexual roles — look up people like Franklin Pangborn or Edward Everett Horton — the former sort of slightly openly gay, the latter in denial for life.

But if a producer or director wanted to dog whistle to audience members who knew, “This guy is a homo,” they’d cast people like them.

After World War II, two conflicting events happened. Number one was that a lot of young men who had gone off into the armed forces discovered during their tours of duty that they did, in fact, love other men. When they came home, they generally arrived in major port cities — San Francisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Diego, New York, New Orleans, Miami, etc.

Instead of heading back home to the Midwest or South, they just stayed in these port towns and found their own kind, and it’s no accident that each of these cities became major gay hubs in future.

But, at the same time, the government, partly freaking out over the Soviet Union suddenly becoming an adversary, banned gay men and lesbians from serving in the military, and proceeded to hunt down those they could find not only in the military but with government jobs.

Meanwhile, Joseph McCarthy was busy finding monsters under his bed in the form of a Communist Infiltration of America. (Hint: It never happened, at least not in the way that HUAC envisioned it.)

But gay men and lesbians in the late 1940s and early 1950s went back to hiding in plain sight. This time, they founded their own communities within those port towns and yet again took on certain jobs — gay men, for example, became hairdressers, interior decorators, designers, personal assistants, or went to work in creative positions for the Hollywood studios.

Tons of lesbians became flight attendants because they were not allowed to get married — another convenient excuse for the parents.

In all of these positions, they were less likely to be investigated, as well as less likely to be fired in a lot (but not all of) them if they were found out as gay.

The ultimate safety for a gay couple, of course, was to start their own successful business, and many a combination antique store and interior design house, florists, a B&B with its own stylist, or music/acting/dance school came out of these disguises.

There were those certain professions that men went into if they wanted to signal that they were gay without being too obvious — interior/set decorators or designers, stylists, make-up artists, or fashion/costume designers, to name just a few, and any of those had their place either serving the wives of rich men or within the studio system itself on set.

By the end of the 1960s, things started to change after the Stonewall Riots, which led to the first pride parades a year later in 1970. It was still an uphill struggle, not helped by the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s (and the way it was totally ignored by the Regan Administration), but in some ways that plague galvanized the community.

The old prejudices started to be forced away in the 1990s for a lot of reasons — more representation in the media, more celebrities coming out, and (on a personal level) more and more people realizing that friends and family they’d known for years were gay when they fell ill and came out.

The thing is, these people were the loved ones of those they had to come out to near death, and this really started to change opinions.

After the turn of the century and as medical science started to get a handle on AIDS and HIV, things really started to progress, albeit slowly, until same-sex marriage became the law of the land, LGBTQ+ groups and representation started popping up everywhere, and our current generation of kids in high school and college don’t even question the idea of sexual orientation, or that biological/assigned sex and gender are very different things.

It’s a very different kind of hiding in plain sight, but one that doesn’t so much involve hiding who you are as it does being who you are without hiding it. It’s a nice place to be, as long as we can keep the momentum going forward, but it’s still going to take a lot of work.

Image source: I, Psongco, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

My three Rs are all “Readin’”

(Mainly because writing and arithmetic don’t start with Rs, and yes, I’m being pedantic.)

From as early as I can remember, I’ve always been an avid and voracious reader. I know that it started out with my parents reading to me before I can even remember, but from the second my brain switched on from the mush and I became aware of sitting on my bedroom floor when I was about two, I remember there being books there.

Of course, actually learning to put letters together and read words took a little longer, but I had the advantage of going to a local preschool — I think it was free and run by an Episcopalian church that was, ironically, right across the street from my mother’s Catholic church. That’s where we first learned basic words and the alphabet and all that, and even some basic Spanish.

I definitely remember being able to read some time during Kindergarten because that’s when my parents invited my teacher, Miss Jones, over for dinner.

Side note: I’ve always wondered, but never found out, whether she wasn’t actually a relative, since Jones had been my father’s mother’s maiden name, and grandma had sufficient brothers in Southern California. On the other hand, of course, it’s a ridiculously common name.

Still… she was my only teacher that my parents ever invited over, and I remember showing her my room and my books, and being particularly proud of reading to her from one on human anatomy, which even detailed the whole process of how a baby develops in the womb.

Sure, it wasn’t some college-level text. It was pretty much aimed at the grade school market. But still — I was probably precocious. That must have been related to having been born two months premature, and it’s a trend that continued later in other areas.

Going into grade school, my strong points were always language and never math. In fact, the girls were the ones who naturally excelled at math, and if only adults had paid attention to this at the time, they would have been the ones led down the path of becoming scientists.

Every time in about second grade that we had to fill out a multiplication table, the girls would have their pencils down long before the boys and yet, really, how hard is that? Well, okay, when you’re just learning it, very hard.

But give me words and I was in heaven, and I even started writing my own stories when I was about seven — science fiction, of course — based on my own toys. Sure, they weren’t really that good, but they were a start.

Where the reading thing really took off, though, was probably around fifth grade, when they started some standardized reading-assessment program, probably to place us as we went on to junior high. I remember that it came in this huge box with a series of reading assignments arranged numerically and color-coded. The idea was to make it to the end of the box, where it changed from reading short stories to reading progressively longer books.

One other thing: We didn’t all start at the same place in the box. We took a preliminary test and got our starting position from that, and from what I can remember, I started out pretty damn close to just jumping to the books — five levels down at the most, maybe, when the box had something like thirty-two.

I polished those off pretty quickly, and then read through all of the books, and we weren’t even all that far into the school year, and this left my teacher with a dilemma — but one that turned out to be an amazing breakthrough for me.

Since there was nothing left in the box to read, she and my parents agreed that I could check out books from the library and read and report on those, so I could read almost anything.

Well, almost anything. I mean, I wasn’t going to be doing Naked Lunch or Lady Chatterly’s Lover, obviously. But I could certainly read Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, or Mark Twain and James Thurber. Basically, I was doing work way beyond fifth-grade level and loving every second of it.

It was also probably around the beginning of fifth grade or end of fourth that I started to hit puberty, by the way. If you’re doing the math, that would have put me at nine or ten years old. Not physically impossible, but statistically rare. I have no idea whether the two were related, but it always kept me among the tallest people in my classes, and one of only a few true bases in sixth-grade choir — all of us swimming in a sea of male tenors, altos, and some sopranos.

The latter two groups would always ask us, “How do you hit such low notes?” We’d just look at them and say, “How do you hit such high ones?”

It’s all perspective.

In junior high, I was dropped right into the AP English track, and we started reading at a high school level right off. On top of that, since I was in those classes with a bunch of great lit nerds, we very quickly started swapping reading suggestions, which were all over the place.

That’s how I discovered the literary highs — Joyce, Pynchon (sort of), Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, a ton of science fiction authors, and more; and the commercial lows — The Exorcist, The Godfather, Jaws, every other book made into a movie, and a bunch of novels that were probably only published in order to keep the sales racks in grocery stores, bus stations, and airports full.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. That latter bunch were all fun reads as well and it was in this latter crap class that I discovered the science fiction writer Larry Niven, who did have a huge influence on a lot of my themes and ideas as an adult. I read everything of his I could get my hands on, not realizing until years later that his politics were pretty toxic.

Oh well… at least I managed to scrape off his authoritarian-libertarian taint when I borrowed concepts, so there’s that.

But another great thing came along once I hit junior high and my parents let me ride my bike farther, beyond the library. I discovered used book shops in my neighborhood where my allowance money would buy me a big-ass bag or two of all kinds of books — and while they didn’t make it obvious at the time, I think my parents were extremely happy that this is what I chose to spend my money on.

I think that my dad even gave me a “raise” or two around this time.

But the other best thing ever in that era were the two times a year they would have a gigantic used-book blow-out at our local mall, all for charity — and I would bike my ass the three miles down there as soon as possible after school got out on Friday, and then early in the morning on Saturday and Sunday to spend all day.

And there were dozens and dozens of tables running along both sides of the split walkways along both floors and all around the anchor-store courts, all raising money for various organizations by selling used books.

I never paid any attention to which organization was selling, unlike now. All I was interested in were the books, and the adults never seemed to care what I, a random teenager, handed them to count and charge me for. So, yeah, I gobbled up some pretty adult stuff when I was only thirteen or fourteen.

Honestly, it did me good, and I had a pretty extensive paperback library that covered the entire range — literature from classic to modern, fiction and science fiction from high-brow to low, biography, history, science, dictionaries and reference works, and so on.

I even took the time to create my own card catalogue of it because I was basically a total nerd.

But after each day of one of those mall book sales, I would somehow ride home with four or five improbably stuffed brown paper bags, scoring maybe close to a hundred books for a couple of bucks.

I think the reason that everything was so cheap was because of market glut. There would basically be fifty thousand copies of every single New York Times best-seller for the past two or three decades, for example, so those would get maybe a nickel, or six for a quarter.

The same was true for those famous American authors, so all their stuff was similarly priced, maybe from a dime up. This made the rare quarter to dollar finds totally worth it, and there were plenty of those.

I’d make a big deal and say that these were the prices when Federal minimum wage was $7.25 an hour but… oops, it’s still that! And I wasn’t even working for real money yet, although I think I might have been in the “dad hands you a $20 every week” range, with the occasional “Hey, you’re going to go buy books? Here’s more” supplement.

Yeah. I was a book junkie and my parents enabled it. Good for them.

I’m still as addicted to reading to this day, but I’m not as addicted to books because I’ve gotten over the need for physical media. Seriously. And I know plenty of bibliophile friends who consider that sacrilege, but come on.

I dumped my LP collection in college because it was heavy and stupid and the sound quality sucked. Cassettes? Thankfully, they were a brief stop before CD, but every CD I’ve ever owned I’ve either since digitized, realized I’ve never wanted to listen to again, or can  listen to any time I want through whatever streaming service.

And, again, I don’t have a gigantic and heavy box of crap to haul around.

Dare I say it, the last time I moved, I did the same thing to most, but not all, of my book collection. I grabbed those volumes that had some importance to me, and they’re still sitting on my shelves now. But the ones that were easily replaceable, either physically or online… left behind.

One thing I hear a lot is that people can’t deal with  missing out on the feel and smell of books but, really, come on. What about the crack and hiss of the imperfect sound quality of LPs? If you can honestly say that those licorice pizzas are superior, then please get out of this century.

You don’t need to feel or smell a book to read it. All you need are the words. And I can easily put the entire Library of Congress on the Cloud, or access it from there, and put huge chunks of it on my own PC in a space a lot smaller than the OED. Plus I can read it from anywhere without having to schlep physical volumes with me.

Bonus points: If I want to make notes on and highlight an eBook, I don’t have to mutilate the original permanently. Or even the digital copy. And I can certainly mark my spot without bending over a page.

So here’s to the digital world, where I could have brought home every used book sale and used book store purchase I’ve ever made, complete and readable, on a memory card the size of my thumbnail. And still enjoyed every bit of it.

Then again… this exact scenario was one of the dreams all those science fiction novels — high brow and low brow — taught me from day one. One day, all human knowledge will be available to anyone at the touch of a screen.

Too bad that it still comes along with so much human stupidity. Oh well…

Image source: The Last Bookstore, Downtown LA. Photo by the author, © 2019.

%d bloggers like this: