Monday, June 3, 2019

Drag Memories and New Friends: Chatting with Jonathan Ned Katz, Oral Histories of the Drag March

My heroes have always been gay historians and drag queens.
This blogger with Hucklefaerie Ken,
Brian Griffin and  David Buckham,  fellow Church Ladies 
Historian Jonathan Ned Katz
McDarrah PHOTO  

It  was a rainy Thursday.  The sky opening as I made my way to the LGBT Center, as if the sky is crying we begin “A Drag March Storyslam: Tales of Glamour and Resistance!” hosted by the   Village Preservation - Greenwich Village Society For Historic Preservation

Join us for a multimedia storytelling event that will illuminate, titillate, and educate. A celebration of 25 years, the creation of a Drag March archive, and a collection of memorable storytelling performances!
This event is fully accessible”
Like  Stonewall itself, everyone has their own drag march narrative.
 Hucklefaery Ken and Brian Griffin  invited me.
“This year is the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riot, and the 25th Anniversary of Drag March, which was founded in response to Stonewall 25’s rejection of Drag, gender-nonconforming, fetish, and others marginalized within the queer community. Drag March is the only grassroots, leaderless Pride event that marches without a permit. It’s the only Pride march that travels from the East Village to the West Village. Its storied history is one of glamour and resistance, of movements and activists that define the Village, the legacies of the misfit beginnings of the Village’s queer movements, and so, so much more.

The narratives growing from this space are many.
Anarchists and queers connecting and clashing through time.
The stores are many.

My friend, the historian Jonathan Ned Katz, met for coffee earlier in the week. We met at a Rise and Resist Action, zapping the president.
 His writings have inspired generations of queer historians, journalists, and writers.
We’d been chatting  about history and lost friends, anarchism and fighting at the  the Bus stop in  the West  Village. He told me a few stories about his life in the city, father, a radical. I ask about Keller’s, the iconic leather bar on Barrow and  West  12th Street. He only went once. And we chat about friendships, including the  poet Ed Fields. And the conversation turns to Allen  Bérubé,  the gay historian, who shuffled off years before his time. But working  with Allen was one of the high  points of his life.  The friendship are what this is all  about during  those years. Friendship and Freedom was the name of the first gay rights periodical. Its founder Henry Gerber formed the Society for Human Rights in 1924, and later lost his job with the postal service. When he was arrested, all his journals were confiscated, copies of his notes, and issues of Friendship and  Freedom.  Although only two copies of the publication were produced, they found their way into  the hands of Magnus Hirschfeld, the noted  German physician and sexologist, who placed it in an archive with other early homosexual publications.
Courts eventually call for the return of Gerber’s notebook and files.  Yet, only his typewriter was turned.  All his journals were lost to history.

“Perhaps they are somewhere, lost in a police archive,” I wonder.

“I tried to stay away from the fights in GAA.  We put on a play at the firehouse. I did the play  - Coming Out! - separately from GAA. (There is great stuff on about the play)
I was proud of it.  I was proud that I confronted the director over his drinking. The production  was better as result. It worked for gay liberation in New York.  It was a highlight of my life… a cooperative experience. In the face of the horror in the work – being  in  GAA was fighting  a great evil like World War II or ACT UP…But the solidarity make it so wonderful.  Much of that cooperation feels like it is missing under capitalism.”

Its long queer history that becomes Jonathan’s life work, a history that enveloped him.
Katz recalls the days before liberation. It was 1961, he picks up a man, who tries to blackmail  him:

Sixteen years later, the world  had changed. Men were supporting each other.
“… in 1977, in a consciousness-raising group, I compare notes about dangerous encounters with a group of gay men. It turns out four other guys have suffered a similar or worse threat. We commiserate about our gay lives before gay liberation. We begin to speak out; we begin to resist.”
Resisting meant Coming Out!

Those were days when activists were literally fighting  for their lives.

Vito was a force of those early meetings.
“We Love You Vito!” members of ACT UP cheered on Gay Pride Day 1990 under the balcony of Larry Kramer’s apartment where the iconic queer activist sat that day, five months before he succumbed to the virus.
They were such  losses, the AIDS years, and would have so much to say if they had lived.
As Sarah Schulman points out, it was the creative experimental ones, the Vitos, were the first to go.

Gradually, the conversation  turns to anarchist Eve Adams, the current subject of Katz’s research. 

He is researching a carefully documented biography of the Polish, Jewish, lesbian immigrant to the U.S. in 1912 who called herself “Eve Adams.”

After immigrating as “Chawe Zlocsewer,” she finally settled on “Eve Adams.” She suggested, perhaps, that her androgynous person combined a bit of Eve and a bit of Adam.

Eve is of interest for publishing, in 1925, a daring, unique, pioneering book titled Lesbian Love, a community study of women she had known, that also reveals much about her.

Eve Adams is also notable for opening queer and bohemian-friendly “tea rooms” in Chicago and New York, in the 1920s.

Eve’s hangout, at 129 MacDougal Street, in Greenwich Village, was a popular spot until her arrest in 1926 for publishing an “obscene” book and for “disorderly conduct” (alleged attempted sex with a policewoman sent to entrap her). Eve was tried, found guilty, jailed, and then deported in 1927.

Residing in German- and Italian-occupied France in 1943, Eve was arrested and sent to Auschwitz, becoming a victim of the Holocaust. Katz is focusing on Eve’s resistant life in his biography: Eve Adams Living.

The University of Wisconsin Press will publish the biography. No publication date is yet set. Katz hopes that, the major LGBT history website, will publish the original documents that reveal this pioneer’s life.

If anyone knows of documents about Eve Adams that Katz might not have discovered, he asks to be contacted at  Full credit will be given for any assistance.

 Friends with Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, the renowned anarchists, Eve was viewed as a dangerous radical.

And Milena Jesenská, Kafka’s love, who perished in Ravensbrück in Germany.
Several accounts of her days there have found their way into publication.

She maintained  a correspondence with  Kafka from1920-23. 
Kafka wrote:
“Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just the ghost of the addressee but also with one's own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing.:
We talk about the witch trials and panics of our history.

By Thursday, it was pouring as I rode out to see Jonathan and take part  in the  drag storytelling night at the Center.

Its been  a quarter century of stories about the drag march, my favorite night of pride weekend, without sponsors, we’ve kept it together, through a countless approaches to reclaiming public space.

But even here the controversies are many.
Permit or no permit.
No permit.
Only one person has been  arrested,
A black man in  2012.

Clothes soaked, I list to story after story, perspective after perspective.
“It was my first coming  out in drag,” one man declares. “Wear whatever you wanted to wear.  This is our time.”
t was a space for speak out and  be who we are.

“I’m gonna tell  a little story,” notes another. 

“I was asked to dress like Judy  Garland in  2004. I did a performance, took a shot of vodka, overdosed and died.  They lift me up and carried me across the  village.  Gay men were wailing all the way to the Stonewall, where I’m resurrected…”

Ken is introducing everyone. I can’t get all  their names, but I jot down a couple.

“It gives me great pleasure to introduce another  legendary performer, Please welcome John  Kelly.”

John steps up on stage.

“I was born in Jersey.   And the only thing good about Jersey City is the path train to the village. I had an elder who took me to see the Cockettes their second night here…. And that was the beginning.  When Ruby Rimms gave me a tip at the Anvil in 1993 I knew I had arrived.  I decided my activism was  going  to be about this” recalled John.  He shared about a lover lost to AIDS.  “I take these moments and performances and dedicate them to our friends who’ve come and  gone.  These gestures are really how we’ve sustained ourselves in the face  of AIDS.”

Amica recalled, “Someone brought a paper bag of sequins.  For five years they were everywhere.”

Another man recalled his first march in 1970 the year after Stonewall.  Bette was there.   And then it started being about money and I stopped going until I discovered the drag march.”  

“When gay marriage was announced at the Stonewall, we felt like we had arrived,” another man recalled.

But this didn’t stop others from chanting:
“We don’t want to marry. We just wanna fuck!”

Following that, I read about that night in  2011 when all New York City felt like  Marti Gras.
I read an excerpt from my book Rebel Friendships:

“This eighteenth Drag March was both a street party and a critical mass, opening public space for everyone as our cavalcade cascaded through the streets and made history at the Stonewall once again. “The Drag March started as a protest against the organizers of the Gay Pride Parade (officially the LGBT Pride Parade),” notes Guncle (2011), offering a little history. “During the 25th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots, this very white male- influenced and weirdly conservative group thought that drag and leather were no longer appropriate for the annual parade. [T]hey ignored the fact that it was trannies and drag queens who were the majority of rioters at Stonewall.” From here, people started planning, and the Drag March was born (Gallagher, 1994). Every year since 1994, queers in New York City have kicked off Pride weekend with this unpermitted neighborhood street procession. I first attended in 1999, when the rumblings of the nascent alter- globalization movement overlapped with some 12 years of queer ACTing Up in the city. The global justice movement would make its national debut during trade talks in Seattle later that fall, the burlesque of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)’s rambunctious queer political tradition finding its way into much of the playful “tactical frivolity” of the ascendant movement (Shepard, 2009). The plan for the 2011 march was no different from the plans of other years. “Drag is what one makes it. Dress for success? Dress down? Undress? Under duress? Anyone can join in,” a flyer declared. “All it takes is a well spent dollar at your favorite second hand clothing store and a dream. Brought to us by the New York Radical Faeries and The Church Ladies for Choice.” Time’s Up!, a cycling group I worked with, promoted the event on its website: “Come ready to dance. Remember nothing says resistance like drag queens in high heels. Tonight we’ll have hundreds of them, plus a sound bike!” The group planned to bring a sound bike and iPod to ignite a dance party immediately following the march, contributing in its own way to the festive celebration of colors, streets, and New York City’s unique culture of resistance. As usual, the plan was to meet at Tompkins Square Park (Eighth Street entrance) at 7 p.m. and revel in the East Village summer sun before marching west to Stonewall Place/Christopher Street. That Friday night, I rode out from my house in Carroll Gardens, in South Brooklyn, up to Williamsburg to meet some others from Time’s Up! to gather up the sound system. In our interview years earlier, Eric Rofes had suggested that one can make friendships anywhere, but his most important friendships were from movements. When I showed up at the Time’s Up!
space in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, just below the Williamsburg bridge, I was struck by the scene. I did not know Keegan Stephan well. But he walked down to let me in. Opening the door, he had a beer in his hand and was wearing a gold one- piece bathing suit he had cut in half with his long hair down. Looking at me, he scratched and tucked; he looked like a tough guy with his beard and long hair, ready to ride— very gender- fuck. Another volunteer with the group, Joe, was there to help set up the sound bike, a bike equipped with the equivalent of a car stereo on its back. He wore pink hose, a wig, and a T- shirt that declared, “Trans Power.” “I think I was working on bikes again when you and Joe showed up,” recalled Stephan. “What is great about that space is to be able to work in that space and have people like you and Joe show up and start talking with me about things. Joe came to hook up the sound bike, and he was in drag and looked great. And you showed up. And both of your energy was so inspiring that I . . . was brought into that movement that night because of my friendship with you guys.” “Come Sail Away” and “I Want to Be Free” blared out of the sound bike speakers as we rode through the fog across the Williamsburg Bridge into the city. Onlookers screamed with approval as they heard the sound bike. “It was joyous,” continued Stephan. “And then we rolled into the march, and everyone was thrilled to see us. And sort of the broader community was plugged in; people I had worked with in the Reverend Billy campaign, people that I know from Rainforest Relief, and other direct action groups were all there.” Harmonie Moore, also known as Brian Griffin, greeted us and offered us an iPod full of drag anthems for the dance party. I loved my first glance of the Faeries, drag queens, and village vagabonds in their colors, costumes, and glitter at the park; they were a mix that felt like a reunion of the Cockettes and the cast from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Anarchists mugged with drag queens, trannies with hipsters, hippies with crusty punks, and Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and homeless people cavorted together, playing drums, dancing, blowing bubbles, and sharing space in the nether zone of the East Village. At around 7:45, the Faeries called for those in attendance to circle. Everyone gathered and held hands as various Radical Faeries welcomed the Witches of the East, West, South, and North, with Faeries strolling through the circle to remind everyone why we were there. Harmonie Moore passed out lyric sheets for “Under the Rainbow” for after the parade, with information on the back about New Alternatives, a social services program for homeless queer youth. Street youth were the ones who ignited the riot after all. And the bikers, Church Ladies, and Faeries meandered out of the park, west on St. Mark’s Place.
 “We were all bonded and one,” explained Stephan. “And as we marched, other people that I knew in my life were marching with other people that I knew who joined in.” People always cheer for the march. As they leaned out of their windows, a friend of mine said he felt more like he was at Mardi Gras than at the march. It certainly felt that way, particularly when the ride intersected with “Queerball,” a radical street party organized by members of the Rude Mechanical Orchestra (RMO), who joined the drummers in the march, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” More and more different groups converged, with the Time’s Up! Central Park Traffic Calming Ride intersecting with Critical Mass at Broadway— all headed West. At one point, a Japanese dance troupe joined the parade, dancing along with us. Harmonie Moore led everyone in a rendition of the Mary Tyler Moore theme song: “Love is all around, no need to waste it. You can have a town, why don’t you take it.” The sun was setting in the summer sky. Few knew all the lyrics, yet most everyone joined in for the chorus, “You’re gonna make it after . . . You’re gonna make it after all!” throwing their hands in the air. The Church Ladies for Choice sang “God Is a Lesbian” to the tune of “God Save the Queen.” Others chanted, “Arrest us. Just try it. Remember, Stonewall was a riot!” Some screamed, “We don’t want to marry; we just want to fuck!” When we arrived at the Stonewall, everyone sang the familiar words:
Somewhere over the rainbow Way up high, There’s a land that I heard of Once in a lullaby.
Hokey, but many are still moved to connect with this piece of history (Ariel, 2011). There remains a utopian hope in the lyrics and their dream that there could be a different world out there. The riot being commemorated, after all, took place on the night of Judy Garland’s funeral (Weinstein, 2009). As everyone sang, for a little while, we were all friends, connected for a moment in time. Hanging out in the street at the Stonewall, the Radical Faeries and RMO played drums while the dancing crowd swelled. After the sun had gone down, some meandered into the bar for cocktails. I ran into one of the “Yes Men” covered in sparkles. We talked about how hot the march had been. “So much has been good this year,” he said nodding and looking around. After a couple of songs, Joe turned on the sound bike to play “Fly Robin Fly.” A few Faeries started a makeshift ballet performance in the streets. The crowd expanded when “Dancing Queen” came on. As the street party
started growing, the police moved in, first to get Joe to turn down the music and then to push the crowd out of the streets. The year before, we had scheduled the dance party for 10 p.m., after a brief bike ride, allowing the crowds to leave only to pump up the sound system on our return. The crowd reconverged. Joe and company danced on cars. At the 2011 march, there was no such pause in the action. Instead, Drag March participants collaborated to hold the space. Run- ins with police are not uncommon at the Drag March. In 2008, the unpermitted action was also just about shut down before it could begin (Shepard, 2010). In 2011, the police were in no mood to be killed with kindness. After the group sang “Somewhere over the Rainbow” at the Stonewall, they pushed forward. The crowd started to chant, “Whose streets? Our streets!” Joe pushed the sound system further into the crowd, and the police tried to arrest Yotom, an activist from Time’s Up! His friends separated them, getting in the way of the police crackdown as he stood on a police car. With a little help from the crowd, Yotom proceeded to literally unarrest himself, pulling away from the police and exiting the scene, only to return in a different outfit. Unable to detain him, the police attempted to confiscate his bicycle. “That is not your property,” said Bill, another organizer with Times Up!, to the police, who ignored him. He insisted, “That is not your bike. You cannot take it.” As he spoke, another bike supporter inserted the pedal of his bike into the wheel of Yotom’s bike and pulled backward. The scene became more and more chaotic as the push and pull between the police and activists escalated. Activists were eventually able to grab control of the bike. Meanwhile, a gentleman in a white wedding dress started talking with the police. Once again, the police were going on about us not having a permit. A few of us noted that the First Amendment is a permit for those wanting to “peaceably assemble” and enjoy a little of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” “You can’t do this tonight,” the man in the wedding dress implored as negotiations intensified. Another observer would note, “We did this last year without a permit. We let the cars through and kept on dancing.” The man in the wedding dress chimed in: “They are voting on gay marriage in Albany right now. And this is the anniversary of Stonewall. You don’t want a riot do you?” “The pushback was all very spontaneous,” noted Jessica Rechtschaffer of the Radical Homosexual Agenda, who also took part. “There was very little traffic, a great vibe in the air. Traffic could pass. And the cops started pushing. People realized this was stupid and unnecessary.” “We were on Christopher Street dancing in front of the Stonewall Inn when the law was passed legalizing gay marriage,” Stephan recalled. “We went nuts. The police came up and tried to get us to shut it down. Do
you want a riot on your hands? This is the Drag March, and gay marriage was just passed. Let us revel. It was a crazy and glorious night. And all the stories of my friendships from that night— there was me, you, and Joe. Tim Doody was there. Our good friend Yotom had an epic, epic night that night. He came out in drag, and then he jumped on a cop car. That was a huge night for him,” Stephan gushed, full of wonder at what the evening became. By this point, the sound bike was booming. The policeman eventually left and went back to community affairs. “We were able to take the street while the police fell back,” Rechtschaffer continued. “It was a glorious night.” It was getting closer to 10 p.m., and Christopher Street was a full- blown street party. “Express Yourself,” “YMCA,” and “Macho Man” all boomed from the sound system. After 10 p.m., rumblings came from the bar that gay marriage had passed in Albany, and the crowd broke out in applause and cheers. People wanted a New York song, so Joe put on “New York State of Mind” by Jay Z, and all of Christopher Street sang along. Beyoncé’s “All the Single Ladies” drew roars from people in the crowd, who reveled in her reference to marriage in the campy song: “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.” “I was honored to be there DJing on such a historic occasion,” Joe noted. “I feel like that night was historic,” recalled Stephan. “That was also a huge night for me in becoming a fuller activist and a fuller human being. And part of that was that first moment when I was being a bike mechanic, which was the role I had in the group, and then you guys, your positive energies and friendship, drawing me out and letting me access this other part of myself as an activist and human being, which is a big part of myself. I love it. I revel in it.”

Finishing my talk, my friend Todd Tif Fernandez, whose just walked in, declares, “I was that man in the white wedding dress.”  I know Todd from environmental activism.  That’s the beauty of the drag march, the overlapping movements which converge here, between Critical Mass and Extinction Rebellion, the cyclists and marching bands, anarchists and anti-assimilationists colliding and sharing  space within this permit less parade.

Come on  up and tell your story, everyone declares,
One story after another.

“Get our of the street or you will be arrested,” Huckelfaerie screams  into  the mic imitating the police.  Oral history accounts of the parade blur with diverging  and conflicting memories.  Huck traces his drag march story, “exploring  the intersection between performance,  theater and activism.”  

“We can all agree that words do matter,” he begins.

“Having  people  call  a circle, casting a circle you are  between worlds. For  me my experience began with the circle. We had these rituals we would do, the Radical Faeries led me to the drag march.  In  2003, after we cast the circle, we welcome everyone.  The Patriot Act has been passed and people are scared. We welcome everyone into  the circle,  the punks, the  crusties,  the  homeless, the  people  who  do not always get the love they deserve from  the world. We were tripping  balls.  We don’t have  a plan to take the street.  But we find ourselves on  Ave A.  The Critical Mass comes.  We’re getting pushed into  the bikes.  I have been arrested before,  at Matthew Shepard 1998.  (I was arrested there as well).  And the cops lead us to the Stonewall.  In 2008, the cops scream get out of the street or you are going to jail. Seeing my old ACT UP friends and the tank  man in Beijing from 1989, I think I said you need to fix this to the cops.”

“Arrest us just try it! Stonewall was a riot!!!” activists start screaming, filling the street, as we always do, regardless of the police, who seem fixated on control.  

And the march moves Westward.

No permit.

Each year the police want us to get a permit and  we resist.

Afterall, there is no need to ask for a permit for  a right we already have.

This year, Huck was corned into it by the police, who pointing out that many groups are vying  for  the space outside  the Stonewall.

Life liberty and the pursuit of happiness takes countless forms.

It’s a hard call.

All he knows if Friday, June 28th, we will sing and have a dance party.

History is a blurry space, with countless overlapping stories.

Jonathan and I chat with the drag heroes.

In the Invention  of Heterosexuality, Katz describes a political economy of pleasure.  Hopefully we can all support such a space, the drag march is an  embodiment of that.

We make our way back out into the rainy night.
History is rumbling. 

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