Apr 19, 2014

A Pilgrimage to Mecca

When I was a kid, I kept looking for a "good place," where boys held hands and kissed, and lived together throughout their lives.  In eighth grade, my boyfriend Dan and I somehow decided that Saudi Arabia  was a good place.

So we checked out the three books on the Middle East available at the public library, and spent our allowance on others at the Readmore Book World.  We ate olives and drank coffee, and sat cross-legged on the floor (since one of our books said that no one in Saudi Arabia used chairs).  We sent away for an Arabic textbook.  And we planned a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The holy city of Islam, forbidden to non-Muslims, remote, mysterious.

It's not mysterious anymore.  There are thousands of photos and videos on the internet to show you every inch of the city. Trip Advisor offers suggestions on hotels, attractions, shopping malls, and restaurants (including the commonplace Hardees Hamburgers and Kentucky Fried Chicken).

But 40 years ago, before the internet, in a small town in the Midwest, we found only sketchy, outdated information:
The tale of explorer Richard Burton sneaking into Mecca in disguise in 1853.
A two-paragraph description of the pilgrimage (hajj) in Hitti's Islam: A Way of Life.
Some photographs in a National Geographic article.
Nothing else.

The lack of information made Mecca even more attractive.  It could be whatever we wanted it to be, so we imagined date palms, camels, scimitars, labyrinthine walkways, towering minarets, and men, their dark hard muscles gleaming against the white linen of their ceremonial robes.

Or out of their robes.

And, most important, freedom from the mind-control chant of "what girl do you like?  What girl do you like?"

How were we going to get to Mecca?

I suggested that we become missionaries, and win all of the Muslims in Saudi Arabia for Christ. Surely it wouldn't take more than a year or two, and then they would welcome us into Mecca.

But then, Dan pointed out, it would be open to everyone, no longer forbidden, not safe anymore.

In the fall of ninth grade, we decided to move to Jiddah  to work as engineers, then cross the desert  by camel (about a two day trip) and sneak into the city. If we wore Arab costumes, we would certainly be undetected.

Once we reached "the good place," we would never want to leave.

But sometime in the spring, Dan suddenly abandoned our plans to call a girl and ask her for a date!  He had been taken over by the tripods.  He was lost.

I know now that Saudi Arabia is one of the more vehemently homophobic countries on Earth. But I still remember the dream of Mecca that kept us warm and happy during a cold Midwestern winter 40 years ago.

For more stories of junior high, see: Getting Phil to Sin; and a Naked Man for Christmas.

Apr 18, 2014

The Balcony: Jean Genet's Play of the Gay Underworld

Like Yukio Mishima and Quentin Crisp, Jean Genet belonged to the old school of gay writers who thought of sexuality, especially gay sexuality, in terms of darkness, disease, and corruption.

Our Lady of the Flowers (1942), written while in prison, is about members of the gay underworld, including the drag queen Divine and the male prostitute Darling, who aspire to an antithesis of the "normal" world, finding honor in betrayal, beauty in "sordid" same-sex acts, and virtue in murder.

His Thief's Journal (1949), written while in prison, suggests that the gay underworld is the antithesis of the "normal" world, finding a trinity of evil "virtues": same-sex acts, theft, and betrayal.

His play The Balcony (1957) is a further exploration of this moral inversion.  It is set in a brothel in an unnamed city in the midst of a revolution. Three clients take on the roles of a Judge, a Bishop, and a General, who perform their duties on prostitutes acting as a Criminal, a Penitent, and a Horse, while each is interrogated by the Torturer (a hustler named Arthur).

Meanwhile, everyone waits to hear from Roger, the brothel's former plumber, and Chantal, a prostitute who has gone "straight," renounced the sordid underworld and gone off to join the Revolution.

The madam, Irma, falls asleep and dreams of three young men who are wounded and dying, presumably casualties of the revolution -- but then they are revealed to be named Blood, Tears, and Sperm.  They are casualties of sex.

An Envoy (sometimes the Chief of Police) arrives and tells them that the real-life Judge, Bishop, and General have been killed.  Irma suggests that her three client take their place.  The deviant have become normal.

The Balcony has been staged many times, sometimes with all-male casts which emphasize the homoeroticism of the shadow world.

Most productions involve semi-nudity, especially from Arthur/The Torturer.  In the 2007 performance in Washington D.C., he was played by Rashard Harrison (top), and in the 2013 version directed by Rafael de Musa, by Francesco Andolfi (left).

There have been two operas and several film versions, notably a 1963 tv movie with future Columbo Peter Falk as the Chief of Police, future Spock Leonard Nimoy as Roger, and Shelley Winters as Irma.

Apr 14, 2014

Mark Gregory: Mascara-Wearing Man-Mountain of 1980s Actioners

You're probably seen The Warriors (1979), starring Michael Beck (of Xanadu) as Swan, a gang leader trying to get from home from the Bronx, while rival gangs try to kill him.

The Bronx Warriors (1983) is a blatant ripoff, with Mark Gregory as Trash, a gang leader trying to get home from the Bronx, while rival gangs try to kill him. But it features more gay subtexts -- the mascara-wearing, leather-clad Trash doesn't particularly care for women, but he cares quite a lot for some of his fellow gang members, especially Fred Williamson's Ogre.

You've probably seen Escape from New York (1981), with former Disney kid Kurt Russell as the gnarly Snake Plissken, who must escape from Manhattan (transformed into a maximum-security prison) along with the kidnapped President of the United States.

Escape from the Bronx (1983) is a blatant ripoff, with Trash and his friends trying to escape the post-apocalyptic killing zone of the Bronx, along with the kidnapped president of a major corporation. But again, Trash is not particularly interested in women, but rather interested in gang leader Dablone (Antonio Sabato).

In 1983, director Enzo G. Castellari discovered the 17-year old shoe salesman working out in a gym.  Renaming him Mark Gregory, Castellari groomed him to capitalize on the man-mountain fad, beginning with the two Bronx Warriors movies.

Gregory didn't seem to like acting much.  His feminine mannerisms resulted in homophobic harassment from some of the extras.  He kept to himself, not socializing with anyone except Castellari and his teenage son Andrea.

During the next six years, Gregory appeared in seven movies in the U.S. and Italy, including the Thunder series, about a Native American seeking revenge; Fred Williamson's Delta Force Commando; and Adam and Eve, with the primordial couple fighting cannibals and dinosaurs.  

He gave it his best shot, but acting wasn't his cup of tea, and in 1989 he returned to being Marco di Gregorio and disappeared into civilian life.

Gregorio remained incognito for over 20 years, in spite of efforts from fans and Castellari to find him.

Finally, after extensive research, a fan managed to track him down: he still lives in Rome, where he is the manager of a company that specializes in personal growth.  No, he won't do an interview.  He doesn't want to be disturbed.

Apparently the homophobic harassment took its toll.

Hannes Bok: A Closeted Gay Life in Science Fiction Art

When I was in junior high, I discovered The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and thought it the best thing ever written. Was heroic fantasy always so wonderful?

As it turned out, no.  My friend Darry kept shoving novels from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series into my hands.  The titles were evocative and strange: Golden Cities, Far; The Wood Beyond the World; The Water of the Wondrous Isle; Red Moon and Black Mountain; The Broken Sword.  But the stories inside were boring, overwrought, and full of men obsessed with rescuing, winning, and wooing women.

One of the books that Darry recommended strongly was Beyond the Golden Stair (1970), by Hannes Bok.  I gave it a glance: in the first paragraph, a guy named Hibbert has a recurring dream about a beautiful woman; in the end, he wins her; and in between, there's some stuff about a golden stair, crystal masks, and a blue flamingo.  Yawn.

A few years later, I stumbled across a book, The Life and Legend of Hannes Bok (1970).  Turns out that he was an artist who illustrated over 150 covers for fantasy and science fiction magazines and paperback novels.  Some naked men in the lot, mostly being threatened by weird alien monsters, but also a lot of naked women.

I didn't think about it again for many years, until I met Emil Petaja, who published science-fiction versions of the Finnish Kalevala.  He was then in his 70s, one of the elderly gay men who had been part of the San Francisco gay scene since the days of the Black Cat Club.  But science fiction and the gay scene didn't merge easily.  In the 1960s, he and his lover had to pretend to be just roommates, even among close friends like Lin Carter, editor of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

His lover?

Hannes Bok!

But wait -- if Hannes Bok was gay, why all the female nudes?  And why did he fill his novel with heterosexist imagery?

Petaja stared at me.  "Are you kidding me?  Sometimes he had to draw naked women in cover art -- that's what the publisher asked for -- but his real art was all about gay men being threatened by a homophobic world."

"Ok, well...why was Beyond the Golden Stair so heterosexist?"

"Hibbert falls in love with a woman, sure, that's what sells.  But what about Burks?"

"Um...." I didn't remember the character.  It had been over 20 years since I leafed through the book and tossed it aside.

"The one who's transformed into a blue flamingo?"


He nodded triumphantly.  "Code.  He displays his true nature -- the blue flamingo -- and he becomes the Guardian of the Pool.  A position of authority.  The straights didn't get it, sure, but the gays did."

Even today, gay artists, writers, directors, and actors often present heterosexual love stories, in order to sell.  But never underestimate their ability to acknowledge same-sex desire and romance, if only in subtle, heavily coded images.

Spring 2001: My Date with the Teen Model

When I was living in West Hollywood, there was a strict age segregation.  If your boyfriend was more than five years older or younger, tongues would wag.  More than ten years, and there would be snubs and disinvitations to parties.

So when I moved to New York in 1997, near my 37th birthday, I assumed that my boyfriends would be in the late 30s - early 40s range.

Instead, I was cruised by every Cute Young Thing in sight, guys in their 20s, even teenagers.

What did I have in common with guys 10 or even 15 years younger than me?  I had never heard of Puff Daddy or the Spice Girls.  I didn't watch Dawson's Creek.  I didn't play Grand Theft Auto.  And I was ready for bed by 10:00 pm.

But guys in my age range were usually in long-term monogamous relationships or married to women and closeted.  Or else they had major personality flaws.  So why not try the Cute Young Things?

But they had drawbacks of their own.

The teenage model:  I meet Mario (not his real name) at a party.  He's somewhat more feminine than what I usually like, but short and muscular, two of the five traits I find attractive (the others are dark skin, being religious, and having a large endowment).

The rest of the story is on Tales of West Hollywood.
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