Notes on an “All-Male Wedding” in 1947

Here’s a newspaper story I found years ago and never knew what to do with. Inspired by a friend who works on the intersections and tensions between Black and gay activism, I finally digitzed it, and figured I’d throw it out there into the public sphere, since it’s a pretty fascinating piece of history.

Brief backstory: I spent the summer of 2003, and some of 2004, in Memphis, researching the history of race and censorship (which I ultimately published as an article here). I spent endless grueling hours scrolling through reels of microfilm, from the two dominant local white papers and also the Memphis World, the local Black newspaper that frequently contested racist censorship decisions. So I did not particularly have LGBT history on my mind for this project, but when I saw this, I knew it was too significant not to print out. The quality is abysmal, because it’s printed from old microfilm, but it should be legible if you click on it and blow it up:

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The title suggests perhaps a recoiling–why else the need for a recovery?–but the tone of the article is softer. Gender is a little slippery here–we start with “two men who were too much in love to live apart,” but one becomes (in scare-quotes) a “wife.” Another “she,” the chief bridesmaid, is also a “young man”–who goes missing, as the story continues:

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We’re caught here in some gender anxiety, but also clear disinterest from the police in interfering. (As a sidenote, the article in the second column shows the Black press resisting the concerted national effort to depict interracial labor activism as a communist conspiracy–a story with particular resonance in Memphis, where violence against unions had a long and then-ongoing history).

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This is hard to decipher, I know, but here is one powerful sentence: “The two men apparently were seriously in love” (top of the 2nd full paragraph). The tone of the article is bemused, a little unsure and suspicious, but not hostile. “People said the couple was elegant,” reporter Wilbert E. Hemming reports, with no apparent scorn or mockery.

Disorder erupts from an apparently outraged crowd, but again, the police apparently arrest homophobic rioters, not the (now fleeing) couple.

And then the article ends.

I will confess, I don’t know enough about the political history of Jamaica in the 1940s to firmly situate this article in that context, nor the broader LGBT history of its national culture (and I’m deeply suspicious of idiotic article titles like Time‘s 2006 story “The Most Homophobic Place on Earth?” which tend to play into larger narratives of a civilizing American empire).

But the article also speaks to another narrative, that of the U.S. Black press and its reporting of queer issues in the 20th century. Thaddeus Russell has argued that middle-class Black politics hardened into a heteronormative stance in the 1950s, in order to make stronger citizenship claims at a time of pronounced Cold War homophobia, which thereby drowned out a more accepting Black working-class culture. But Kevin Allen Leonard challenges Russell in a recent article, arguing that the African American press in Los Angeles was already demonizing Black queerness in the 1940s.

Leonard makes a compelling case about L.A., though he also notes, “it is very difficult to draw definitive conclusions about same-sex desire and gay identity in the African American community, since very few sources of evidence allow historians to probe African Americans’ attitudes in the years before World War II.” As he observes, we’re often left to use newspaper reporting on drag balls as a proxy for wider sexual politics because of this paucity of source material.

One newspaper article does not a counternarrative make. But it is certainly a rare and valuable item, and one that I’m glad to get out of my files and into the world. Its casual approach to queer love and marriage is remarkable for any U.S. newspaper in 1947. I scrolled fairly extensively through the Memphis World in the 1940s and 50s, and I can’t recall seeing much else in the way of queer coverage. Was this story (which, after all, came through a press wire) reported elsewhere? I’m not sure; so relatively few midcentury newspapers are digitized and accessible (a quick and superficial Google search does show reporter Wilbert E. Hemming popping up syndicated in place like the Indianapolis Recorder, detailing a Jamaican art show with a Black Christ).

So that’s where I leave things, but I’d love to hear more about this article, the story it covers, and its cultural context, whether in Jamaica, Memphis, or elsewhere.

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Fred Halsted Goes to Iowa (and Gets Stranded on VHS)

Two (rather blurry*) images of Fred Halsted in the late 1970s:

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The first is from El Paso Wrecking Corp., part 2 of Joe Gage’s “working man’s trilogy” that charted a gay sexual geography across the highways and truck stops of America and constitutes a landmark in working-class queer sexual culture.

You’d think the other image shared a heritage, but no, far from it: this is Fred Halsted in his only mainstream film role, a PG-rated comedy about women’s basketball shot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and released in 1979 as Dribble.

None of this makes sense. Though I suppose few would confuse Dribble for a porn title.

I learned of the film’s existence while reviewing some files on Halsted; it received a brief mention in a 1979 Advocate interview:

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That caught my attention. Halsted was burned out on porn at the time, having also recently made his stage debut in a play called News for Tennessee (as in, Williams). But okay, that at least made some sense. The film, not so much. I became determined to track it down.

Dribble popped up on VHS in 1982, retitled Scoring, and hasn’t drawn much attention since. Wikipedia offers a brief profile that mistakenly attributes it to Troma (which has another film with the same title)**. There’s a nicely researched essay on a dead-minor-league-sports-teams history blog (I’d add a “!” but considering what I’m writing about, it would hardly be fair) about the basketball team whose owner apparently funded the movie as a failed promotional ploy here. And Temple of Schlock, one of the best sources on forgotten regional and exploitation films of the 1970s, has a tremendous set of newspaper documents about it. But none of this mentions Halsted at all, even though he somewhat surprisingly got his name on the movie’s poster (borrowed from TOS):

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Finding a copy, or at least an affordable one, isn’t easy, but I landed one for ten bucks on ebay, a onetime rental at Video Park on Flamingo & Pecos, which the gods of Google tell me was in Las Vegas. The American video cover art is disappointingly dull compared to the Japanese video that must have come out around the same time:

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The film itself is even more dire. The opening locker room scene gives a sense of what Debbie Does Dallas would look like with a PG rating, all flat affect and broad humor. Probably the most clever moment comes on a team bus, where one woman reads The Hunchback of Notre Dame; another leans over and asks, “is that the Knute Rockne story?” Lulz like a Godard film from 1972, here. Usually the jokes aim even lower—more par for the course is a middle-aged florist whose son grows some weed and gets him high, which manifests in some half-assed air-dribbling, true Iowan reefer madness. It’s all pretty painful to watch, even the upside-down-car-on-a-shopping-cart scene.

Usually low-budget regional films from the era before the great neoliberal enclosure movement of the 1980s that privatized everything except the clouds at least promise some nice visual documentation of local scenery, but aside from one driving scene in downtown Cedar Rapids, we don’t even get that. If you want to see Iowa in the 70s caught on film, you’re better off with Dick Van Dyke in Cold Turkey (which was Des Moines, not Cedar Rapids, to be sure). The one nice thing I can say is that otherwise incompetent writer-director Michael De Gaetano shoots basketball games with an impressively active camera that gets into the middle of the action (there was apparently an article about the film in American Cinematographer in 1979, which kinda boggles the mind). Otherwise, it’s a total wash.

And what of Halsted? Ah, sweet disappointment: he enters around the 15-minute mark, playing a character listed in the end credits as “Highway Psycho.” Fittingly so: he enters stage right in a jeep, swerving at a van carrying our protagonists of the good team Vixens for no apparent reason. Fortunately, they’re riding with the florist, who carries a cheap-looking mutant venus flytrap (one wonders if De Gaetano, whose previous films were grade-z sci-fi/horror, was planning a Little Shop of Horrors remake)—which he throws at Halsted, who screams and runs off the road. In the next scene, Halsted shows back up at the diner where the team eats, punches the florist out, but then gets knocked out himself by their female coach. Exit Halsted—with another 75 painful minutes remaining.

I kept hoping he’d show back up, but no dice. We do get a more high-profile cameo from real-life basketball star Pistol Pete Maravich, who comes across as a charmless, sexist jerk, but the sad fact is, Halsted himself offers no particular gravitas in his non-sex debut (there’s another film debut here, credited surreally alongside our FH, though he too leaves little impression that he’ll later ascend to a television presidency):

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Of Halsted’s approximately five short lines of dialogue, none are delivered with distinction, and even the suspiciously slow-motion punch he throws is no paragon of choreography. We are left, I am afraid, with the impression, albeit one founded on slender evidence, that pornography is really where his talent best showed.

The single other point of interest in Dribble/Scoring is a brief scene late in the film, on the military base where the Vixens are to play against the men’s team in the climactic game (I’ll withhold spoilers, but you won’t lose money betting with your gut here). The general in charge tells an underlining, “I don’t want any faggots running around this base. I have enough trouble keeping those glory holes in the men’s room boarded up.”

A homophobic joke typical of 1970s fare, to be sure, but am I entirely off base in reading further into it? This is, after all, a film featuring gay porn icon Fred Halsted, whose last acting role was in a hardcore picture that prominently featured actual glory holes (the aforementioned El Paso Wrecking Corp.). Surely someone behind the camera knew this (edit: indeed; see below***). Whether I am making this more interesting than it really is through an act of wish-fulfillment projection, I am not sure, but I can’t help but read this as some sort of willfully perverse in-joke (did mainstream audiences in 1979 even know what glory holes were? I don’t know; I also refuse to speculate about the fact that the actor delivering that line is credited as Dick Hardiman, in his single screen role). During his brief appearance, Halsted is certainly filmed within the precise iconography of Joe Gage’s films:

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Oh wait, that last one is Joe Gage again. See what I mean?

Whatever the case, the story behind the scenes was assuredly more interesting than the one onscreen. Halsted would shortly return to porn. It’s sad to think of him playing out his  final years trapped in a smut trade he longed to escape; sadder still that the available evidence does not support a theory that going mainstream would have been a viable avenue of escape. Such is the unavoidable conclusion of Dribble.

* I’m shooting my TV with my digital camera, so Criterion collection visuals, this ain’t

** I stand corrected; though it seemed reasonable to assume the Wikipeeps had simply conflated this movie with Troma’s 2004 film, never underestimate Lloyd Kaufman’s capacity for dribble: they own it indeed (though to what end, even they don’t seem to know). I thank the esteemed folks at Vinegar Syndrome for the correction. 

*** I am informed by reliable sources that director Michael De Gaetano is indeed gay, so that helps explain Halsted’s otherwise odd presence here and the knowingness of the nods to the Joe Gage aesthetic. De Gaetano also brought an interesting moment of sexual confusion to his 1977 supernatural thriller Haunted. Queer subtext in exploitation films that are assumed by default as hetero-oriented might be an interesting field of investigation; the work of David DeCoteau springs to mind, among others…

Fred Halsted Gets Married

(This post is dedicated to Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Antonin Scalia, bigots who hold tremendous power that they will exercise tomorrow. May they someday be compelled to watch the entire Fred Halsted oeuvre, and may it change them for the better.*)

When Fred Halsted released his rough, transgressive artporn film Sextool in 1975, reviewer William Moritz applauded it in Entertainment West, declaring that the “heterosexual, middle-class concepts of marriage and morality that have been foisted upon gays by society are ruptured and banished.”

Well, not entirely: a few months later, in May 1975, Halsted was “pleased and proud to announce his engagement to his personal slave, super-twink Joseph Yale”:

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In some ways the Halsted-Yale partnership upsets prevailing narratives of same-sex marriage. As opponents of marriage equality quickly recede into an ugly and intolerant past that collective memory is sure to quickly purge (as it did miscegenation laws, a rapid forgetting Peggy Pascoe chronicled in What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America), two main camps are left standing. Liberal proponents of formal legal equality recognize marriage as the basic institution of sexual citizenship, and demand access for all. Queer radical critics, like the Against Equality collective, reject the idea of assimilating into a hegemonic “normalcy” that “apes hetero privilege” and subjects LGBT relationships to the same regulatory mechanisms of state control that straight people have so insipidly hoisted upon themselves in the name of what Dagmar Herzog calls “the wages of straightness.”

I’m simplifying, but that’s because what I really want to talk about is Fred Halsted.

Halsted and Yale complicate the tension between these camps. As kinky, nonmonogamous, drug using pornographers, they were hardly precursors to what Lisa Duggan has labeled homonormativity, a sort of inversion of Foucault’s perverse implantation in which it’s the ones labeled perverts who internalize the standards of vanilla straight society. Carl Wittman railed against this in his famous “Gay Manifesto,” writing that “gay people must stop gauging their self-respect by how well they mimic straight marriages.” But Halsted caught flak from the other side, too, as radical gay liberationists often reacted negatively to the rough SM slant of his 1972 masterpiece L.A. Plays Itself, some even considering it oppressive.

Halsted himself saw no ideological tension in his marriage. When asked in a 1978 interview why anyone would want to get married, he simply said, “Because they’re in love. Everyone’s always wanted to get married.” While this somewhat unnuanced and ahistorical view fell short of profundity, he later added qualifying comments that rejected a monolithic view of the institution. He and Yale had a clause specifying that adultery could not constitute grounds for divorce. “We’re not heterosexuals,” he said, “and I don’t think we should live our marriage in terms of heterosexuality.”

So far, so queer. Domesticated consumer subjects of American empire, they were not, and Halsted and Yale provide an interesting historical counterpoint to bifurcated narratives of marriage in which it stands in opposition to a more “radical” liberationist ethos. (They also, I think, serve as reminders of an important aspect of this history all too often overlooked, which is that whatever legal bans have been imposed, same-sex marriage has been happening for decades, and has never been prevented by homophobic laws; the actual question is one of state recognition.**)

Yet something sticks in the craw upon reading that mostly charming announcement. Slave imagery has a long (and complex) history in BDSM circles, but as Margot Weiss recently argued in Techniques of Pleasure: BDSM and the Circuits of Sexuality, it can’t be wholly “emptied of any specific historical or social meaning, or rendered ‘not real’ by the bracketing function of the safe, sane, and consensual scene” (196-97). In a society still haunted by the ongoing racial inequalities generated by slavery, calling something “play” does not simply remove it from history. Yet Halsted granted himself license to transcend race; as a self-identified pervert, and a filmmaker who at times used bold interracial imagery, he seemed to feel entitled to lay claim to racial imagery that was not his to own.

It wasn’t just the widely-used SM slave trope. William E. Jones’s Halsted Plays Himself, one of my favorite books of the past decade and a work of astounding research and recovery, includes a tremendously useful bibliography of Halsted material. One citation it does not include, though, which I found in the vertical file for L.A. Plays Itself at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives (from Drummer, issue 38, 1975), reflects Halsted’s casual but deeply problematic claiming of loaded racial language:

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Ugh. You can see my shocked underlining. Surely the affective resonances of language like this vary across time and place, and it fit Halsted’s carefully cultivated self-presentation as a coarse iconoclast (who also called himself and others “faggot,” much to the anger of many gay activists). Yet it also undeniably shows a sense of unquestioned racial entitlement. 

There are numerous analytical avenues one could take from there. I fear that I stretch the limits of a decent blog post (and heaven forfend that one would traipse into indecency whilst discussing that all-American man Fred Halsted!), but I’ll leave it at the simple suggestion that Halsted and Yale queered the question of same-sex marriage long before it became a mainstream-LGBT-vs-queer-radical proposition, and also that they did so while engaging in a form of sexualized white privilege that requires interrogation—had the Supreme Court not, this very day, reminded us that racism is dead and we live in a post-racial nation that just happens to be riddled with deep-seated racial inequalities. I guess Fred Halsted and Samuel Alito share some ideas after all.

* I like to think that while Thomas was renting copious amounts of porn lo those many years ago before the interwebz, he accidentally brought home a copy of L.A. Plays Itself. Oh, the ensuing hilarity…

**I’m not sure whether Halsted and Yale received state recognition for their marriage, but the announcement does mention being “wed legally,” and the time and place of Boulder, 1975, is glaring; Richard Adams and Tony Sullivan had wed there in April 1975, with a half-dozen gay couples following before the county clamped down. Were Halsted and Yale among them? I don’t actually know, but I’d love to learn more.

Newark on Film: The Ironbound Vampire (1998)

One of my favorite courses to teach is called Visions of the City in American Cinema, which moves from silent Edison shorts to Tyler Perry. In the class, we put urban history into dialogue with the social imaginary constructed and peddled by the history of film (you can see a syllabus for it here, if you scroll a bit). Local examples are useful (and help make things relevant), and when I taught it in Philadelphia, it was easy to draw links to local location shooting: the unjustly forgotten blaxploitation gem Trick Baby, the great use of Market East in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out (1981), overlooked 90s independent films like Cheryl Dunye’s magnificent Watermelon Woman and Andrew Repasky McElhinney’s flawed but visually striking Magdalen, and even the recent spate of lazy, uninteresting studio pap—Limitless, Next Day Air, or the excruciating Law Abiding Citizen, which somehow roped Mayor Nutter into an ill-advised cameo.

Teaching in Newark, drawing on local film legacies presents a greater challenge. Newark has been better represented in literature than it has in film, what with all those Philip Roth novels chronicling it. IMDB lists 206 titles as being shot in Newark, but a good portion of those make fleeting (or disguised) use of the city. I remember when they filmed part of Dark Knight Rises here; I had to walk from Penn Station to campus because the subway was closed. I would not say the film is of much use as a vision of the city (well, of this city; obviously its gothic noir reflects a larger metanarrative). We do get a lesser De Palma movie with some nice shots of residential neighborhoods (Wise Guys from 1986, one of his worst), but when I thought I had found a useful Newark film—New Jersey Drive, one of three gritty, ambitious urban dramas Nick Gomez made in the mid-90s before settling on a television career that’s surely more lucrative but vastly less interesting—it turned out to be set in Newark but not actually shot there. Its theme of rampant car theft had angered local officials concerned with the city’s already often demonized reputation, and Mayor Sharpe James’s spokeswoman had declared, “Over my dead body will they film this in Newark,” as a fascinating 1994 New York Times article reported.

Most of the films that best engage with Newark are documentaries: Marylou Tibaldo-Bongiorno and Jerome Bongiorno’s Revolution ’67, about the iconic uprising that continues to define the city’s legacy; Marshall Curry’s Street Fight, about now-Mayor Cory Booker’s first, failed, campaign; or Charles Brack’s Dreams Deferred: The Sakia Gunn Project, a necessary intervention into a media that otherwise found the 2003 murder of a fifteen year old lesbian in downtown Newark unworthy of much note.

So what in the realm of narrative cinema does that leave? Well, here’s one that I don’t think has been discussed in the context of urban film history: The Ironbound Vampire (1998). Wikipedia currently fails to include it on its “Ironbound in popular culture” section, but the debut of filmmaker Karl Petry is a Newark film through and through, from the title (which refers to the downtown-adjacent neighborhood criss-crossed by railroad tracks) on down. It seems to have had a pretty successful run on Alpha Video’s New Cinema line of low-budget thrillers; IMDB reviewers have mixed things to say, but it’s a fun, adventurous film that packs several curveballs into its brief hourlong running time.

Based, as an opening title card informs us, on “the life and work of parapsychologist Joanne D.S. McMahon, who was born and raised in Newark, ‘Ironbound,’ New Jersey,” it veers from a contemporary police investigation of local murders to WWI flashbacks in which a young local man winds up carrying vampirism home, on through perfect casting that brings not one but two cast members from Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space into the fray (thus situating things in a glorious DIY lineage), into the travails of what the DVD box calls “a beautiful female vampire-killer,” and finally some gratuitous home-stretch nudity presumably added to insure that the box could read “Contains nudity and sexual situations,” arguably a prerequisite for its target demographic.

The results are hit and miss, but more the latter than the former. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing; viewers deeply invested in classical Hollywood production value and bourgeois narrative markers might be considerably distressed at points. But what is inarguable is that Petry engages with Newark in a way so few films have. Ironbound Vampire opens with a lovely montage of Newark footage. Presumably shot on empty streets at dawn, its stillness sets a nice requiem-like tone:

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We get great footage of postindustrial Newark, in scenes that effectively capture a city hit hard by global economic change without ever falling prey to the romanticizing ruin-porn lens that comes under so much (rightful) criticism:

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I’m not sure where this cemetery is, but Petry knows how to create a vibe with the right angle, and chooses the right time of day to harness natural light

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Petry even manages to shoot inside St. Benedict’s Church, probably the only film to use it as a location. Newark Penn Station, too!

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Ironbound Vampire even takes brief detours to Manhattan, Philadelphia, and Asbury Park, where Petry captures some resonant boardwalk-area shots.

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Amidst the location shooting, we do, of course, also get perks like burning vampire corpses:

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Ultimately, Ironbound Vampire is a little confusing and unfocused at times, but still a remarkably ambitious film considering its micro-budget, and one of the very few films I know of to really utilize Newark as a character. It’s great example of creatively harnessing overlooked urban space in a way that drives and informs narrative and aesthetics. Unlike so many films of its era that engage with “the city,” it doesn’t offer knee-jerk anti-urban backlash or pathologization, but instead simply takes Newark as a somewhat weatherbeaten place where vampires—who don’t seem to carry much of the allegorical weight usually assigned them—may prey, but vampire-hunting parapsychologists triumph in the end.

Oh wait, I think Cory Booker actually did use that allegory when he ran…

Apologia / Internet roundup

Three reasons why this blog exists:

1. To help with the writing process. When I was in grad school, working on my dissertation, I experienced two full years utterly, hopelessly devoid of structure. I’d  read Jo Freeman’s classic feminist essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”–I was even writing about it, at least theoretically–but it took on visceral new meaning in the face of days that began around noon, lurched into midafternoon, and then contended with Los Angeles’s repertory film calendar. When to hunker down and dissertate?

So I figured the more I committed myself to writing, the more I’d write. I became a book reviewer for the Library Journal, a strange gig that involved random books showing up unannounced and needing comment. I became a music writer, a hack of a music writer to be sure, mostly for the free CDs and guest-list tickets. But it did help me write consistently (if not well), mostly about Guided By Voices and every related album I could throw my slavishly devoted prose at. Once I got to hang out on Napalm Death’s tour bus and see what they were reading, but mostly I churned out slightly overwrought comparisons of Robert Pollard’s lyrics to T.S. Eliot. Hopefully things here never get quite that dire. I just figure writing regularly and casually will help preclude the familiar boom and bust cycle in which days of hopeless procrastination are punctuated by manic 15-hour bursts of verbal explosions.

2. To get a little more involved online. I see friends blog, guest-blog, and comment, and I . . . work on revisions for a piece that might see the light of day in 12-18 months. They’re not mutually exclusive, and one seems more fun than the other; it’s 2013, so it’s high time to jump aboard those fabled interwebz. I’ve enjoyed my occasional forays–a co-authored post on Philadelphia’s legendary Toynbee Tiles at the National Council for Public History’s commons, an interview at Columbia University Press’s blog when my book came out, and then a two-part guest blog for them about the politics of pornography in 2012. Oh, and I also started a ridiculously pointless blog about the various albums to emanate out of the Byrds, as something of a warm-up gig (short version: Gene Clark is woefully underrated, Gram Parsons is somewhat overrated, and none of the other Byrds ever did much worth noting, unless it is to note how unrelentingly wretched the inexplicable half-century career of David Crosby has been). But having a central forum–dedicated to topics more engaging than dollar-bin vinyl detritus–seems timely (at least as of, oh, 2008 or so, before the tweets and the tumblrs came along) and, hopefully, rewarding. 

3. I thought there was a third reason. Maybe ethics: no trees are killed for this, nobody (I hope) is forced to read it, and its only tangible impact that I can think of is a tiny, tiny contribution toward the heat death of the universe, which is impending anyway. So why not?