Craig Seligman's Pride Month Booklist
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Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag
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Left: Photo by Martin Ryter. Right: Photographer unknown. The mustache was a stick-on.
Doris Fish was a made-up person (in both senses: invented and cosmetically enhanced) who became one of those characters who define an era. That era, from the early 1970s to the early ’90s, when he was variously shocking the public and cracking it up with the aggressive glamour of his bad-girl drag, has receded so quickly in our collective consciousness that it can be hard to remember how totally beyond the pale drag queens used to be. And not just drag queens: Across a large chunk of the globe, gay men and lesbians were in a far shakier place at the beginning of those years than they were at the end. Drag queens were a flash point in the culture wars that raged during that era of change.
Doris was brazen in the delight he took in his frocks, his wigs, his high heels, and above all his makeup. “I’d paint my eyeballs if I could,” he said. He had to settle for painting his teeth. But he was nothing like the stereotyped ditzy drag queen. He had a sharp intelligence and reservoirs of kindness hidden behind his quick, cutting wit, and he was extremely grounded. He touched everyone he encountered, including me, though I was only on the periphery of his world. Why does his memory still haunt me, all these years after his death? Perhaps because Doris was the freest person I’ve ever known, even while, as an artist, he was also one of the most disciplined.
Everyone who knew him was aware of the way he compartmentalized his life. There were effectively three Dorises—the artist, the drag queen, and the prostitute—and he embraced them all. I’ve never known anyone who loved being himself so much. All three of those personas centered on his gayness, at a time when homosexuality was just beginning to make its way toward the center of the conversation in both of the countries he called home. But if Doris was, in some ways, emblematic of our gay generation, in the end he was too exceptional a person to be emblematic of anything but himself.
His name still resonates in Sydney, his hometown, and in San Francisco, his adopted one. During his abbreviated life, Sydney metamorphosed from a homophobic backwater where gay sex was against the law into the cosmopolitan backdrop of the biggest and showiest gay-pride celebration in the world, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, where Doris was a star. At the same time, San Francisco progressed from a city without a single gay elected official to the one with arguably the best organized, most politically effective gay community on the planet. They evolved as Doris evolved, and in the end, both cities honored him with acclaim.
Back then our understanding of gender fluidity wasn’t what it is now, and a person who called himself (or herself) a drag queen might occupy a wide range of places on the sexual spectrum. Within the Sluts a-Go-Go, the San Francisco drag troupe Doris led, the fragile and ebullient Tippi was a person we would now easily recognize as trans, while the formidable Miss X was a bisexual man whose most profound attachments were to women. Doris himself had no uncertainty about his own gender or his sexuality. Though he was thoughtful about his feminine side and a student of all things womanly in cosmetics and apparel, he loved his male body, nurtured it, and got tremendous pleasure out of it. And so did a lot of other men.
He began as a visual artist, attending art school in Sydney, and he never stopped painting portraits on canvas and paper. But his real medium was the living face. Doris could completely erase a face—his own or someone else’s—with base and powder, and then, once he had it down to a blank slate, paint an entirely new one on top of it. He was a constant presence in Sydney and San Francisco drag shows and pride parades. But Doris’s face, if not his name, was famous beyond those local stomping grounds, owing to a yearslong series of wacky greeting cards on which he appeared in dozens upon dozens of guises. The cards were big sellers and a good source of income (he was always scrambling), but they were also something no one recognized at the time: a cultural marker. That middle Americans were scooping up these artifacts of high-camp humor to send to family and friends showed that the society had progressed to the point where a gay sensibility no longer had to disguise itself. Suddenly the wider world was in on the joke.
Doris started performing in Sydney as a member of Sylvia and the Synthetics, a psycho troupe that, like San Francisco’s Cockettes, represented the first anarchic flowering of gay creative energy in the post-Stonewall era. Gender-bending was in the zeitgeist. The male members of Sylvia and the Synthetics made no attempt to hide their maleness—sequins and taffeta went on over furry chests and hairy legs. The group would hurl things at the audience, and the audience loved it. The Synthetics’ hostility and, sometimes, outright violence were fueled by the repressed anger in the room and outside it. That fury was looking for an outlet, and soon it would take on an identifiable shape in the aesthetic of punk. But by then Doris had moved on.
He made his first trip to San Francisco in 1975 and fell hard for the city. In the ’70s San Francisco was a paradise for horny gay guys like Doris: Rents were cheap, sex was everywhere, and all the rules seemed to have vaporized. He made his debut on the alternative-entertainment scene in 1977 after winning a contest to join a three-week engagement with the city’s resident rock screwballs, the Tubes. Thereafter, he became the driving force behind a decade-long series of sidesplitting drag shows that were loved as much as you can love throwaway trash—which is what everybody thought they were. No one, Doris included, perceived them as political theater, when in fact they were accomplishing satire’s deepest dream: not just to rail against society, but to change it. From Sluts a-Go-Go through Nightclub of the Living Dead and beyond, Doris’s work belonged to a creative movement that was reshaping attitudes toward, and thus altering the status of, queer people in much of the world.
A lot of onlookers, however, accused him of doing the opposite. In the 1970s, drag queens, up till then a marginalized minority within a marginalized minority, suddenly became flaming-hot potatoes in the angry debate over how homosexuals should represent themselves in the face of the backlash that started with Anita Bryant’s Save Our Children campaign. Drags were not then the antic and lovable TV personalities we know them as today. They terrified straight people, and they horrified those gay people who were bent on proving to the heterosexual world that homosexuals deserved equal rights because we were just like everybody else. Drag queens didn’t want to be like everybody else. “What is the point of our years of struggle,” Doris wrote in a popular San Francisco gay newspaper, “if people who present a ‘negative image’ are to be hidden and excluded from our community media and from their full rights as citizens of this planet?”
In retrospect, we can see how the Anita Bryants of the world undermined their own agenda. Ranting about homosexuality brought it into day-to-day discourse, familiarizing gay men and women to a public that previously hadn’t given them all that much thought. The same can be said of AIDS. Of course, no one would claim that this silver lining was worth the hundreds of thousands of deaths that accompanied it. Still, the epidemic filled the news with images of gay people, and those images went a long way toward making the public realize that gay people were their daughters and sons and siblings and friends and colleagues. Once the epidemic swept San Francisco, Doris became a ubiquitous performer on the benefit circuit, as well as one of the city’s best-known AIDS patients himself. By the time he died, in 1991, he was celebrated far beyond drag circles for his public-spiritedness, his openness about his own suffering (though that took him a while), his unflagging wit, and his courage. His death was front-page news, which would have delighted him—though he would have shrugged off the celebrity treatment as only proper.
I first met Doris late in 1983, at a cocktail party given by my boyfriend (he’s now my husband), Silvana Nova. He and Doris had just finished performing together in the first episode of Naked Brunch, a drag-heavy soap opera that had become an unexpected hit at Club 181, a hip San Francisco nightspot with a mixed gay and straight clientele.
To repeat myself: It’s difficult in this ostensibly more enlightened era to get across the kind of alarm with which drag queens were then viewed. Homosexual acts were still against the law in much of the United States and Australia; variances on the sexual spectrum were barely acknowledged, much less discussed. I was a serious young journalist, and a drag queen was about the last thing I envisioned as boyfriend material, though it felt very bohemian to be able to say I was going out with one. Silvana, in any case, wasn’t a professional like Doris: he had a day job (in the art department of a magazine, where we’d met), and by the time we got together he was doing drag mainly for special occasions, like shows and marches.
Doris and his cohort Miss X came to Silvana’s cocktail party directly from a shoot for West Graphics, the greeting card company where they were star models. They weren’t just in drag but in space-alien drag: blue faces, scarlet lips, and eyebrows penciled on like lightning bolts. (The cutline on the card that resulted, with the two of them glaring and weighed down with shopping bags: “nine planets in seven days, never again!”) Miss X I found charming and easy to talk to (despite the terrifying side he was reputed to have), and we’re friends to this day. Doris was cooler—cordial, as you would be to a friend’s boyfriend, but not one to linger with a stranger irrelevant to his career.
No doubt they’d come up with the interplanetary theme because they were then in the middle of filming their outer-space drag extravaganza, Vegas in Space. Silvana had been cast as a shopgirl in the movie’s extraterrestrial shopping mall, and early the next year I visited him on the set. He was costumed in whiteface, a voluminous white wig, and a Kansai Yamamoto giraffe-print jumpsuit out of his own stuffed closet. A snapshot of the two of us taken that evening, with Sil standing a foot taller than me in his heels (he’s tall anyway) and me looking bemused, has sat on my desk ever since; it always amuses me when visitors to our house see his picture and ask, “Who’s that?” (It’s been less amusing when, more recently, they’ve started asking, “And who’s that next to him?”)
Though Doris fascinated me, he remained more acquaintance than friend. (He always loved Silvana.) I got to know him a little better a couple of years later, when I proposed a profile of him to the editors of the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Examiner. Doris, I knew, would jump at the publicity. Two years earlier such a topic would never have been approved, but attitudes had already shifted to the point that an article about a drag queen whose name was by then well known around town was no longer too dangerous a proposition for a family newspaper, though I know it caused some nervousness.
Only in retrospect do I understand to what extent the editors’ consent was a marker of real change. By that year, 1986, AIDS had put gay men all over the news, often in a sympathetic light, since it was hard for journalists, in San Francisco or anywhere, to be hateful about the dying. Though the reasons were horrible, we had reached our greatest visibility since Anita Bryant’s antigay campaign of the late 1970s—during which Harvey Milk, the country’s best-known gay politician, had noted that “more good and bad, but more about the word homosexual and gay was written than probably in the history of mankind.” Now AIDS, perversely, was having the same normalizing effect.
I interviewed Doris and several of his friends and colleagues, and because I was an inexperienced writer of profiles I spent far more time with everyone than a four-thousand-word article required. In retrospect, that overwork was lucky, since Doris and Tippi are no longer around, and much of what follows comes out of my interviews with them.
They’re not around because AIDS killed them. The story of Doris and his circle is also, inevitably, the story of the AIDS catastrophe. Recent narratives of those years have centered mainly on ACT UP, the group of largely East Coast activists who responded to governmental indifference in brilliantly creative—and effective—ways. (The Reagan administration found it easier to ignore the mostly gay men and needle users infected with HIV than to risk alienating the Christian right, which thought HIV was what they deserved.) But angry activism wasn’t the whole story, especially in San Francisco, a famously gay-friendly city whose government responded to the emergency with both compassion and funding.
AIDS had other significant effects both for the community in general and for drag queens in particular. One was that resentments that had simmered for years between lesbians and gay men over issues of power hogging in the movement (not unlike the ones that earlier had created a rift between white women and women of color who felt sidelined in feminist circles) were put aside. AIDS was a family crisis. Those lesbians who had viewed drag as deeply insulting to women came to appreciate the ballsiness that drag queens—many of them, like Doris, sick themselves—brought to rallying a traumatized community. Of course, I’m generalizing; serious antagonisms are never healed that easily. But the worst of the bitterness never quite returned. AIDS was a big part of what transformed drag queens, in a remarkably short time, from social lepers into culture heroes.
A word on the vexed subject of pronouns. Doris didn’t suffer from gender dysphoria: he was a man who considered himself a man (in current terms, a cisgender male) and who enjoyed having sex with other men. A lot. Outside of some childhood fantasies, he never had a serious desire, as far as I’m aware, to be a woman. It’s true that when I knew him, in the 1980s, everyone in his circle and in the wider gay community referred to him with feminine pronouns—“Her new look is sluttier than ever!”—which is how he referred to his gay male friends, too. But this usage had nothing to do with gender confusion; it was a timeworn mannerism of oh-Mary camp banter. In those days I would have felt discourteous calling Doris “him,” but I was following the lead of those around me. I don’t think he cared that much.
When, years later, I started interviewing people about his life, I found that those feminine pronouns were by no means universally used, especially among his Australian friends (his family never used them), which is why I’ve decided not to use them myself. I like the dissonance that the words “Doris” and “him” introduce when you put them together. They give a sentence a glimmer of drag. But I’ve retained feminine pronouns when quoting other people, and if this convention causes occasional confusion… well, Doris practiced the art of confusion. In the case of men who renounced their maleness, such as his close friends Jacqueline Hyde and Tippi, I would feel disrespectful referring to them by any pronouns other than the ones they chose for themselves.
Doris embodied a new stage in the evolution of drag culture. What it had been in the generation before ours is laid out in what’s probably the best-known and the most widely influential of the many books about drag, Esther Newton’s 1972 Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. Newton, who was born in 1940, was a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Chicago when she went to her first drag show, in 1965—watching it, as she wrote in a coda to the book, with “mingled shock and fascination.” Drag queens became her dissertation topic, a daring one at a time when social science, she recalled some years later, regarded homosexuals as “the object solely of psychological, medical, or even criminological study.” In 1965 gay sex was, in fact, illegal in every state except Illinois, which had repealed its antisodomy law only three years earlier. “The insight that gays were not just a category of sick isolates, but a group, and so had a culture,” she continued, “was a breathtaking leap whose daring is hard to recapture now, when the term ‘gay community’ is familiar even to most straight people.” In the usual pattern, her groundbreaking work threatened to demolish her career—she was denied tenure at her first teaching post—until it made her celebrated.
She completed the dissertation in 1968 and published a revised version as Mother Camp four years later. The book is consistently astute and often prescient, not to mention well written. Newton was excited by the taboo-breaking potency of her subject. She understood that the “drag queen symbolizes an open declaration, even celebration, of homosexuality. The drag queen says for his gay audience, who cannot say it, ‘I’m gay, I don’t care who knows it; the straight world be damned.’” And thus “homosexuality is symbolized in American culture by transvestism,” which in turn was why, though at the time this insight may have seemed startlingly counterintuitive, “drag, like violence, is as American as apple pie. Like violence, it is not an accident or mistake, nor is it caused by a few people’s weak character. It is an organic part of American culture—exactly the ‘flip side’ of many precious ideals.” Foremost among these ideals was the strict definition of sex roles that reigned in postwar America (and Australia).
The parallel with violence is intentionally unsettling. “Professional drag queens,” Newton wrote, “are, therefore, professional homosexuals; they represent the stigma of the gay world.”1 Ouch. “Stigma,” “downfall,” “degradation,” “dishonor”: Mother Camp is shot through with condemnatory words like these, although Newton, who’s gay, wasn’t making moral judgments herself. She was talking about how drag queens were viewed by Americans—and not just straight Americans. Many gay men, she noted, had an attitude of “condemnation combined with the expression of vast social distance between themselves and the drag queen,” while others tended to “deplore female impersonators for ‘giving us a bad name’ or ‘projecting the wrong image’ to the heterosexual culture.” This loathing had only deepened by Doris’s time. In the course of a long interview for this book, Miss X surprised me with a sudden tirade: “We were the lowest rung on the ladder! We knew it! We were hit in the face with it over and over again! I mean, my God, we couldn’t even get a good review out of the gay press! Through our whole career!”
Newton further observed that the widespread disdain for drag queens extended to the queens themselves. The ones she got to know were a disturbingly self-hating group: “Impersonators do not often deny society’s judgment of them, and they even cooperate by blaming themselves more than the straight world for their lowly estate. They tend to describe the profession and often their own persons with such words as ‘sick,’ ‘rotten,’ ‘tainted,’ and ‘shitty.’” I would have dismissed this derogatory aspect of Newton’s book as shards from a vanished past before X’s outburst exposed an old wound. Taken aback, I pointed out that Doris never had a low opinion of himself. “No, of course not,” X replied. “She was a goddess. You could never say that Doris was humble! But I made up for it.”
When Doris, early in his San Francisco drag career, rolled around on filthy floors and wet streets (“What a mess! I looked fabulous!” he wrote to a friend after a party in 1977), he was turning this self-loathing into parody. To him it was ridiculous—which shows how fast times were changing. Mother Camp had appeared in print only five years earlier.
Newton also highlighted the chasm between glamour drag and comic drag. When she was doing her fieldwork, a drag queen was either stunning or funny—capable in the former case of fooling an audience into thinking it was watching a born bombshell, or in the latter of drawing comedy both from his acid wit and from the stupefying role reversal offered by a man in a dress. But Doris bridged those roles: He could be gorgeous and still make fun of himself, and of everyone else in the room. Which is why Doris’s wit, even at its cruelest, never had the bitterness common to the queens who came before him. It was good-natured cruelty, because there was no self-hatred in it.
The reason was the momentous shift that had taken place between our generation of homosexuals and the generation before. Among the few things Doris and I had in common was our immunity to the shame that had tormented so many older gay men and lesbians. This kind of self-acceptance characterizes the vast majority of gay people I’ve known—though in fairness I should add that I have friends whose childhoods were sunk in shame and who bridle when I put forward this argument. Which is hardly surprising, since when Doris and I were coming of age the prohibition against homosexuality was unquestioned. (A 1968 poll found 64 percent of Australians opposed decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults. The gay scholar Dennis Altman, writing in 1971, pointed to a survey suggesting “that homosexuals are considerably more disliked by the American public than ex-convicts, ex–mental patients, gamblers, or alcoholics.”) And yet as soon as it was seriously questioned—as soon as a crack appeared in the wall—the wall crumbled and collapsed.
That shift is part of the answer to one of the questions that spurred me to write about Doris: How did we get from there to here—from a world in which homosexuals were despised (or, at best, invisible) to one in which same-sex couples no longer raise eyebrows? It had already started happening in the 1960s, as the counterculture flowered and gay men and lesbians began coming out of the closet in ever-larger numbers. In April 1968 the playwright Mart Crowley managed to secure five off-Broadway performances for The Boys in the Band, his tragicomedy about his own generation of gay men, considered uncommercial because of its subject matter. It ran for a thousand and one. By early in the morning of June 28, 1969, when a battle at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village between cops and a crowd that was heavy on drag queens heralded the Lexington and Concord of the gay-rights movement,2 “Out of the closet and into the streets” had become a slogan with the peal of inevitability. The activism that followed Stonewall is often referred to as gay liberation, but the movement had become possible because by then so many gay men and women had already freed themselves from the shame of previous eras.
I was seventeen when I saw The Boys in the Band in Atlanta in 1970, using a fake ID to gain admittance to the adults-only production. It was my first full-on exposure to the gay culture I knew I was preparing to enter, and its camp one-liners became a study tool for me and for thousands of other young queens who were just learning, in David M. Halperin’s resonant phrase, how to be gay. But it also had a self-pitying side that didn’t ring true to me: “You show me a happy homosexual,” goes one of its most famous lines, “and I’ll show you a gay corpse.” Doris was a living retort to that dictum. Happiness and fulfillment didn’t seem unattainable to our generation of gay men—not, at least, insofar as we were gay. Our consciousness was raised. We were liberated. The task was to liberate everybody else. And on that front Doris was a leader.
His influence on drag style is very much with us in the ironic drag queens of today—performers like Peaches Christ, Bianca Del Rio, and Sasha Velour, to name only a few. Doris was playing with notions of gender at a moment when those notions had started to shift toward what we currently call the nonbinary. He wasn’t what we would now identify as trans—far from it—but he did give a lot of thought to masculinity and femininity and the liberating thrill of traveling between those two continents. His strong sense of self encompassed an unusually fluid concept of identity.
Previous drag queens had presented themselves as women manqué. Nobody in his first group, Sylvia and the Synthetics, bought in to that aesthetic. As Doris matured, his drag got more complex, but it always remained, to use his term, crook. The aim was never to pass for a woman—which, as he pointed out, wouldn’t get him the attention he craved, because no one would notice him then—but rather to savor the freedom of being who you wanted to be and not who somebody else thought you were supposed to be. He was a walking celebration of the gamut of identities available to us and the rush that comes with getting to choose for yourself.
1 On the subject of stigma, the transgender performer and activist Kate Bornstein, who was a friend and admirer of Doris’s, has offered this revelatory observation: “Assuming that gay men and lesbians are more consciously excluded by the culture for violations of gender codes (which are visible in the daily life of the culture) than for actual sexual practices (which usually happen behind closed doors and in private spaces), then lesbians and gay men actually share the same stigma with ‘transgendered’ people: the stigma of crimes against gender. And while ‘transgendered’ people may not in fact practice gay or lesbian sex, and so may not themselves be lesbian or gay, gays and lesbians are invariably perceived as ‘transgendered.’”