Revised 2022 from a personal essay in Bay Area Reporter’s Arts & Entertainment section July 7, 1994.
“Are you from New York?” is a question people frequently ask me. My response: “Nope. I’m just Jewish.” Even my Filipino-Portuguese boyfriend Ken laughs, although he’s heard it more than once. Today we have flown from San Francisco to the streets of New York City for Stonewall’s 25th anniversary and Gay Games IV and as he shares with me, “In San Francisco you stand out as almost obnoxious, but here you fit right in. Except you’re nicer.” Gee, thanks.
Our last visit to New York was with our Puerto Rican pal Robert Torres and we visited a gay Dominican artist who constructed the wings for the NY production of Angels in America. On that visit we had the experience of New York as a Latino city pulsing with the energy of those proud, vital immigrant groups. But what, I wonder, is left of the Yiddish Mecca—di goldene Medina—that my family was a part of here in New York at the start of the 20th century?
A Day At the Games
Gobbling down our first sacramental New York bagels, we rush to a pool out past the U.N. for the swimming competition. We are trying to catch my buddy and mentor Sandy Lowe’s last race at the Gay Games. It was forced to stop calling itself the Gay Olympics by the head of the U.S. Olympics Committee, an actual American fascist, named Avery Brundage, . Sandy is a queer activist rabbi who opposes circumcision and is a professor at Santa Rosa Community College, teaching historical (as opposed to divine) Old and New Testament to undergrads, including the occasional evangelical student who thought it would be an easy-A.
I cheered for Sandy at the first Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982. He was 46 then and is 58 now. Tenks Got we are not too late; he hasn’t swum yet! Gorgeous bodies abound— swim-toned ones, not the lumpier weight-lifter types. Most are clean-cut White boys, rather than greybeard Jews. We do notice, though, that Jewish lesbian folksinger Phranc (last name Gottlieb) is swimming with WH2O (the West Hollywood Aquatics smile) against DC/AC (a queer club from our nation’s capital). “Did she already compete?” we ask two Asian dykes who are holding pro-Phranc placards. One points her thumb over our shoulder, and we look. It really is Phranc, of the jutting jawline and signature flattop, covered now by a swim cap. “Is this better than performing on stage?” I ask her. “This is the best!” Phranc answers, totally pumped up on adrenaline.
Then we spot Sandy. We yell and he waves at us, and at the whole world. He races as part of the Berkeley team and finishes third in his age group, in line for a bronze medal. But it is the swimmer who finishes last who always gets the most applause, hugs, and kisses from teammates. Even I, with my lifelong dislike for competitive sports (always picked last, you may know that scene) love this.
Afterwards, we congratulate Sandy, who grew up in the Bronx and attended seminary in Manhattan. Now he lives in a converted turkey shed in the small town of Windsor in Sonoma County where every Spring he holds a naked gay pond party celebrating what he proclaims to be his annual Buckeye Blossom Festival and Karl Marx’s Birthday. “Frankly,” he tells us, “New York hasn’t changed, it’s only gotten more so.“ But returning as a gay athlete, has he changed? “I was a fat Jewish introvert—my mom’s assessment. I’m now a svelte cosmopolitan extrovert. Well, svelter anyway. But I feel sorry for kids who grow up here; there is not a lot of space for them, nor much beauty.”
A Day of Culture and Beauty
There is a lot of traffic noise where we are staying near the East Village in Alphabet City. Only in mid-morning is it really quiet enough to hear the background sounds of the neighborhood. “Mar-cel-LA! Open the window!” shouted up to the third floor; someone else clanging some trash cans. But you can also hear actual birdsong here. Then “Hec-tor! Hec-tor! Hec-tor!” repeatedly, like a doorbell.
We are off to find Patina du Prey’s “Memorial Dress.” This is a formal ball gown embossed with the names of 25,000 people who have died so far of AIDS. You enter the one warehouse in Soho that doesn’t look like a gallery; to your right is a mirror and dressing table draped with drag paraphernalia and directly ahead is a platform on which stands “gender subverter” Hunter Reynolds wearing the dress. He stands on a revolving platform, like a figure atop a music box. Intermittently he stares directly into your eyes, if only for a moment. The effect is devastating.
The evening proceeds as we run over to Liberty Pier for Tina Landau’s site-specific Stonewall: Night Variations. This brilliant off-off Broadway piece was kicked even further out of Tribeca by a community board that was fearful the play’s subject matter would attract “riff-raff.” Now this musical recreation of seven personal accounts of the Stonewall Riots, mostly queens, street punks and gay libbers is performed on a pier, in front of the lovely Jersey skyline.
Later that night we accompany Justin Bond [now Mx. Justin Vivian Bond] to the Village rock club Squeezebox. On the bill are the tres dragtacular Pussy Tourette and the young glamrock band Nancy Boy featuring Donovan Leitch, son of my fave ‘60s folksinger of Mellow Yellow fame along with guitarist Jason Nesmith, son of a Monkee. Plus rumor has it that Jacob Dylan (son of Bob) may sit in. It’s no surprise that Donovan the Younger wears eye make-up, lamé pants and a shirt rhinestone-studded with this question, “Do You Want to Seduce Me?” We are all smiling YES!
True, I had felt the same way about his dad in a more sadly romantic way, back in the day (which would have been about 1967, the year Donovan the son was born), when he sang “To Try For the Sun,” his love song of longing to pal Gypsy Dave. But a surprise comes at the end of the Squeezebox set when glam Dono puts his head on his guitarist’s shoulder, announcing, “From two Jewish boys, oy vey iz mir.” Rumors that his dad’s real name was Don ibn Levi turn out to be unfounded. The folk-rocker Donovan was purely Celtic. But his wife was a Jewess.
A Day of Yiddishkeit and Handball
Today’s excursion was planned months ago back in San Francisco, with our energetic friend Sima, student of Russian at Stanford and a native of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. And there is a bonus! We didn’t know we’d get to meet her yiddishe mama. We convene in the ticket line for the Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty ferry. The boat is full of dykes and fags who are in town for the festivities, most all disembark at the Statue’s hem, near Emma Lazarus’ still-needed inscription:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
“Oh, I’m a tourist again,” Sima enthuses, gazing up. “And Lady Liberty is large! And she is tough!” Mama Elyce is a tough one too. She had lived in the Haight/Ashbury “during the flower-children years.” Now she plays tennis with a gang of women her own age. “I helped one of my good friends get in shape for the Gay Games. On her 60th birthday she finally had her own bat mitzvah at the lesbian and gay shul—her kids were there, with her grandkids.”
We stay on the ferry until Ellis Island, to see the newly opened museum on the site of the U.S. “welcoming center” on the East Coast. It’s an evocation of the peak years of immigration to the U.S.—1880-1924– and full of wonders from every ethnic group that New York welcomed in. Photos of Cuban santeria are exhibited next to a mystic Hebrew pentagram from Kabala. Stars of David adorn team T-shirts in a photo from the turn of the century Chicago Hebrew Gym Club. It is hard to pull ourselves away from the exhibits, but the return ferry is on its own schedule.
Our excursion continues onto the A train. Yes, the one young gay Billy Strayhorn wrote about for his mentor Duke Ellington, though now it is traveling away from Harlem to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. We get off the elevated to buy the best onion and cheese knishes in all five boroughs, carrying them through a Hasid-free Jewish émigré district to be noshed on Riegelmann Boardwalk which runs right alongside the beach. We share the wooden walkway toward Coney Island with a wide cast of characters. Russians eat in Café Tatiana Sushi Bar. A handball game stars shirtless young men from the West Indies. A crazed Yid scavenges from trash can to trash can chanting, “I don’t want to study Holy Books. I am not a man.” Might this be some kind of Post-Hebrew School Stress Disorder?
Rushing back to Manhattan we meet Sandy and his friend Neil Hart. On their way to the Gay Games’ Closing Night they will visit the Bronx neighborhood where they grew up. It’s only two stops by subway from Yankee Stadium where the Closing Night celebration will be held, so we go with them. Their old home neighborhood is now entirely Black and Brown, Spanish-speaking and very vibrant. At 170th and the Grand Concourse (El Gran Conco, coño!) Sandy informs us, “It hasn’t died, just completely changed ethnicity,” The corner store that used to sell kosher pickles from a barrel is now a bodega and sells fresh stalks of sugar cane. This was once a 100% Jewish ghetto when my mother died here 30 years ago. There was not one single church until you got to Highgate.” He gestures toward a steeple in the distance. “I met a Lutheran minister years later and once had a visit with him over there. He lived in the parish house with his Black male lover.”
That night we are part of the crowd that fills Yankee Stadium for the Closing Ceremony, hosted by Sir Ian McKellen. He was knighted in 1980, but he hadn’t yet become King Richard III, gay director James Whale in “Gods and Monsters”, Magneto of the X-Men or Gandalf the Grey. The parade of athletes circumambulates the stadium grounds, then they all join us in seats to hear Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam, Cyndi Lauper, Broadway icon Barbara Cook and last of all Patti LaBelle, who ends the night with her uniquely soaring rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It’s a gay night not to be forgotten.
Coming Together for Stonewall
The next day marks 25 years since the riots at the Stonewall Inn became a Never Turn Back moment in Gay Liberation history. Appropriately, we start with brunch and then head to Fifth Avenue. This is the illegal marching route up Manhattan to Central Park. The main parade has agreed to obey a police order to avoid St. Patrick’s Cathedral, home of the archbishopric of its hated Cardinal John O’Connor, who was an eager opponent of gay rights.
We are proud to march right up Fifth Avenue with ACT UP! under such slogans as “Gay Liberation: A Movement Not a Market” and “How Many of Us Will be Alive for Stonewall 35?” [1994 was still two years before ACT UP! activists pressured the FDA to begin releasing the “HIV cocktail” of drugs that would begin to reverse AIDS’ prior fatal trajectory as a half-of-us-each-year death sentence.1]
I am wearing a T-shirt that reads: “Loud Pushy Jew Fag” which we customized by adding “Nobody Knows I’m a…” So it’s easy to meet fellow Wandering Jews along the way. Andy carries an “Avenge Sodom & Gomorrah” protest sign and introduces himself: “I’m a sweet Jewish boy from New Jersey. Here’s my sweet gay brother. My sweet Jewish mother still lives across the river. I brought my Iranian Muslim boyfriend home and my grandma made matzo ball soup for him when he wasn’t feeling well. True story.”
We are approaching St Patrick’s Cathedral to the chant of “two-four-six-eight, we don’t need your twisted hate!” Ken, being of good Catholic stock, dutifully lies down for the Die-In, almost a tradition since 4,500 members of ACT UP! and WHAM (the Women’s Health Action and Mobilization) first protested here in 1987 and 43 militants got arrested inside the cathedral2. Queer Nation3 activist and writer Doug Sadownick is right next to us; Ken knows him and sells his books at A Different Light on Castro Street in SF. The most recently published is “Sacred Lips of the Bronx” which explores the edgy love relationship between dork adolescent Mikey and the on-the-down-low PR basketball hot-shot Hector. Doug now enlightens us with his rant: “My parents from the Bronx are ashamed of me. I was the religious one and being queer was my way out of it. But I repudiate their ghetto shame-based, survivor-oriented, morality-laden, paranoia-driven brand of Judaism. It’s important to know where you came from, but I have no sentimental attachment to it.”
At Bergdorf Goodman department store our outlaw march meets up with the official parade. And we cheer each other! For both, it is as if the bad brother or prodigal son had returned home again.
As the day winds to a close in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow, we meet the Ocasio family. They got up at 6 a.m. to bring their entire clan from the Outer Boroughs to memorialize “our brother Benny Ocasio and our best friend Vincent Alston,” both dead from AIDS. This family’s warm resolve, no matter the ethnicity—Latino, Jewish or Irish— makes me feel real pride.4
Still Jewish After All Those Years
Growing up a Jew and learning to be a proud minority allowed me later to come out as gay. My jewishness forced me to be comfortable in an outsider identity. But knowing that New York always existed as a sort of homeland– where not only my people, but everyone “shleps to Brooklyn” (I heard a Black man say that the other day) or asks, “Didya remember to bring the knishes?” (as a Chinese girl nudges her older sister) provides a feeling of belonging in the Promised Land.
As it is written somewhere in Talmud, “If you are not for yourself, who will be? But if you are only for yourself, get over it, grrrl!”
Dedicated to all activists on the 40th World AIDS Day: “Global Solidarity/Shared Responsibility” on December 1, 2022.
1. For more background on what it was like during the height of the AIDS Era see the documentary films “How To Survive A Plague” or “United In Anger.” . But for true biting humor nothing can touch the sardonic publication “Diseased Pariah News.” One by one, all of its editors and writers died in the late 1980’s to ’90s. It is archived at https://archive.org/details/diseasedpariahnews/DPN%20001/
2. For how gay people and ACT UP! have been written out of the history of AIDS by corporate sources see Sarah Schulman’s detailed book “Let the Record Show” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2021, 736 pgs.)
3. Queer Nation epitomized the social changes that overtook and united both men’s and women’s gay communities to include bisexual and transgender folks during the early ’90s. For a good summary by Susan Stryker: http://www.glbtqarchive.com/ssh/queer_nation_S.pdf
4. A few other pieces on Queer4Decades.com touch on these years. “Fair Play: Safe Sex In the AIDS Era” lives on on the Featuring page. The Characters page has “The STUD: Decade by Decade” and “The Quilt Goes to Motown.” A one-hour documentary film is watchable by pressing the Movie button on its Transgender Tuesdays page.