Careless Whisper: Pansy Patois

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In December while trying to verify the colloquialism in The Smiths’ song title “Reel Around the Fountain”1 I noticed that the band’s singer Morrissey had employed a now-abandoned slang in his solo single “Piccadilly Palare,” sung in the character of a former street hustler. It was the lead track on his album Bona Drag, but I hadn’t really collected Morrissey records and skipped that one because it was a compendium of singles. I had, however, collected much Smiths, but I was confused by the band’s many, many compilations and 12-inch vinyl product. In fact “Paint a Vulgar Picture,” from the final album, can be seen as a commentary on this excess, as it laments a pop star’s exploitation in death but also questions the star’s complicity in life.

Satiate the need
slip them into different sleeves!
Buy both, and be deceived

Continue reading “Careless Whisper: Pansy Patois”

A Perfect Crime?

Phrenological Diagram, Leopold and Loeb

Yes, this involves Leopold and Loeb and their victim Bobby Franks…

Killing time a week ago in the expansive area devoted to new releases at the central branch of the Denver Public Library, a title beckoned: Nina Barrett’s The Leopold and Loeb Files: An Intimate Look at One of the Most Infamous Crimes, issued last summer.1 If overly familiar with The Crime of the Century—title of Hal Higdon’s 1975 book2—one might ask, Why another rehash? Continue reading “A Perfect Crime?”

The Pageantry, the Spectacle

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Back in the 1980s I was given tickets to a Southern California kitsch institution, Pageant of the Masters. The concept intrigued: an amphitheater stage filled with “ninety minutes of tableaux vivants (living pictures), incredibly faithful re­creations of classical and contemporary works of art, with real people posing to look exactly like their counterparts in the original pieces,” as described on the event website. But the execution, meticulous as it was, underwhelmed. I guess I wanted more vivants in the tableaux, which occurred too infrequently. But it did occur in a sort of sideshow.

That sideshow was not the companion Fine Art Show, which we took in before the Pageant and from which Andrea and I bought a couple of hand-altered Polaroids that hang on our walls today. Allow me to digress…

Boom Boom Room

The Fine Art Show was conspicuous by the omission of skin: many of the artists appeared to be too well constrained by a bland family-friendly bubble-wrap envelope, but not so well contained that we couldn’t detect hints of riskier work. Hell, Laguna Beach (the Pageant/Show’s site) was home to the Boom Boom Room, which OC Weekly (formerly a sibling to Denver’s Westword via Voice Media Group) claims to have been “the oldest gay bar in the Western United States,” its host hotel, the Coast Inn, having opened in 1929, per the founders’ granddaughter’s timeline. Laguna even had its own chapter of the Mattachine Society beginning in the ’50s. Continue reading “The Pageantry, the Spectacle”

1952: A Triad

1952 was a watershed year for the Mattachine. The organization had begun its engagement with the larger community by standing in solidarity with Mexican Americans who, like homosexuals, were targets of the Los Angeles Police Department. With the arrest of its cofounder Dale Jennings in March of that year, the Mattachine had a test case of its own to rally ’round, but in that effort the group turned inward rather than outward. I examine this dynamic in the first of three articles, “Harry Hay Meets His Match.” I also look toward the remarkable woman Hay met along the way.

The gamble to back Jennings paid off. His superb legal representation—bankrolled by Mattachine fundraising—resulted in a hung jury, allowing the organization to capitalize on an impossible dream: an admittedly homosexual man beating a charge of lewd vagrancy. “Blown Cover: The Arrest of Dale Jennings” reviews some of the particulars of the case, including the identity of his arresting officers. I also examine LAPD’s liberal employment of the lewd vagrancy allegation as well as its use of a tactic known as the “third degree” and brutalization in general.

In the fall of 1952, emboldened by Jennings’ success in court, the Mattachine once again turned its gaze outward, this time to civic leaders and local candidates for office. The vehicle of outreach was a brief survey known to have been completed by only three or four respondents, but when it came to the attention of a local newspaper columnist, the concerns he voiced about the Mattachine turned out to reflect those already in the minds of its members, as discussed in “Queer Questionnaire and Coates Column.”

The above three articles are adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because their length likely would prevent their eventual publication as-is, I offer them via The Tangent Group.

Gerry Brissette: Mattachine Momentum, Misgivings

Brissette-Freman Letter

A profile of Gerry Brissette.

Gerard “Gerry” Brissette (November 12, 1926–September 20, 1980) almost singlehandedly organized what we now know as the Mattachine Society in the San Francisco Bay Area.

With his direction, facilitation, and participation the organization in Northern California grew from a virtually useless mailing list in mid-February 1953 to being active enough to send delegates to the Mattachine’s constitutional convention in April and May of that year. Nearly as quickly, following the conventions, Brissette became disillusioned with the organization’s trajectory and fell away. Due to a series of letters between Brissette and Mattachine cofounder Chuck Rowland in 1953, we are privy both to Brissette’s early biography as well as his motivations and challenges in building the organization in San Francisco and the East Bay. A 1976 interview of Brissette conducted by historian John D’Emilio aids in the latter regard as well.

This profile of Gerry Brissette is adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because its length likely would prevent its eventual publication as-is, I offer it on The Tangent Group.

Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out

Big Mama Thornton

A review of the book by Martin Aston.

With this new volume, Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out, Aston fills a much needed lapse in queer pop history. Unlike books such as Zoot Suits and Second-Hand Dresses (1988) edited by Angela McRobbie and John Gill’s Queer Noises (1995), the former which deals with the subject tangentially and the latter which deals with it personally and sporadically, Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache (taking its name from a late ’60s Northern soul hit) moves decade by decade through the 20th century (a bit before, and after), just as the music itself comes into play.

Paul Benard: Mattachine Misfit

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A profile of Paul Benard.

In my time looking at the lives of members of the early Mattachine, perhaps the most enigmatic was Paul Benard (April 24, 1916–November 7, 1954).

One of the eight men pictured in the famous “Christmas tree” photograph taken by Jim Gruber in 1951, Benard turns out to have been considered for a role in the Mattachine’s leadership. He left the group and left Los Angeles but remained in contact with members, only to die in 1954.

To my surprise last year, a chance query by Víctor Macías-González, Professor of History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at University of Wisconsin–La Cross provided me with Benard’s birth name, and I was able to construct a very detailed account of his early life. Had the existing Mattachine leadership known about his involvement in the little and leftist theater endeavors of New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, they’d have seen him as a comrade.

This profile of Paul Benard is adapted from my work-in-progress with the working title The Feeble Strength of One: Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Maxey, Marx and the Mattachine. Because its length likely would prevent its eventual publication as-is, I offer it here. Lengthy as it is, more study of Paul Benard is warranted.

Vile Vault: The FBI Gets Its Man (or Woman)

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The Federal Bureau of Investigation turned 108 this year, originally having been considered a reform of what the New York Times called a “tangle” of the Secret Service. “The plan is nothing less,” wrote the Times in 1908, “than the merging of the Secret Service and the detective agencies of all departments of the Government into a Bureau of Criminal Investigation, a sort of Federal police, to be incorporated under the Department of Justice.” Lest the notion of such a Federal force strike fear, the Christian Science Monitor cooed:

These employees of the government are not ‘police spies’ and should not be denominated as such even by those who entertain a passing resentment toward the system. In the great majority of cases they are simply confidential agents of the government, and their calling is just as legitimate as that of the confidential agents of corporate and private business concerns.

People interested in what the FBI has been up to during the last century can browse its Vault, an online treasure trove of thousands of documents released either via Freedom of Information Act requests, or by the Bureau’s own largesse.

A sexually circumscribed stroll through The Vault’s index reveals files on several shady characters: Alfred Kinsey, Amelia Earhart, Alger Hiss, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Black Dahlia aka Elizabeth Short, Bayard Rustin, Bettie Page—that’s just the A’s and B’s. (All subjects are listed—but not precisely sorted—by first names.) The C’s are worth a gander, revealing the Bureau’s political inquiries: Cardinal Francis Spellman, Clark Gable, Carl Sagan, Casey Kasem, Christic Institute, César Chávez, Carl Sandburg, Coretta Scott King, COINTELPRO, and none other than Clyde A. Tolson—J. Edgar Hoover’s first mate in the FBI.

Vile Vault examines the FBI investigation of the Mattachine Society and ONE magazine. And the identity of a snitch.

Profile: Wallace de Ortega Maxey, Mattachine Foundation Member, Free Speech Champion

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Wallace de Ortega Maxey was a founding member of the Mattachine Foundation, which was the public face of the clandestine Mattachine Society. In that capacity, Maxey is best known as having hosted the Mattachine’s constitutional conventions, in the spring of 1953, at Los Angeles’ First Universalist Church where he was pastor. Later, Maxey became a champion of free speech, to the point of being a defendant in a significant obscenity case.

I composed two versions of the profile of Maxey.