Jeff Herrell, a decade-plus member of Metropolitan Community Church of Washington, the region’s largest mostly LGBT church, was at the Fellowship’s general conference last year and as he sat listening to a pastor from Indianapolis, something he heard rubbed him the wrong way.
The crux of the argument was that if the Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a network of LGBT-welcoming churches started by Troy Perry in 1968 in the face of almost universal condemnation of gays by mainstream Christian churches, is to survive, it will need to engage straight believers as well.
It’s not a new concept. Many LGBT activists have stated the movement would have achieved far less traction over the past 40-odd years without ally aid. But for Herrell, a Washingtonian of 15 years and a gay believer, the statements inspired an internal groan.
“When I heard that, my first thought was, ‘Oh gosh, really?,’ he says. “It’s a challenge for me because MCC for me is like my personal gay sanctuary away from the straight world in a way.”
A pragmatist, though, Herrell also recognizes the world is changing.
“There is an element of it that’s a little sad, but you know what, we’re old,” he says with a laugh. “This is a post-‘Will & Grace’ world and it’s just not the same as it used to be. It’s like when all the straight girls started going to the gay clubs for their bachelorette parties, you know. I thought, ‘Jesus, I hate this, go somewhere else,’ but you know what? Here we are 10 years later.”
In August, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, a 34-year-old local choir that has about 240 active members and is one of the oldest and largest such groups in the country, announced Thea Kano as its new artistic director. She is the successor to Jeff Buhrman who was at the helm 13 years and involved with the Chorus for 25, and is the first straight director in the group’s history. Chase Maggiano, GMCW’s executive director, says her proven history with the group — she’d been its associate director since 2004 — was considered, but she was given no bonus points over the 30 applicants and four other finalists who applied during a seven-month national search.
“She went through every step of the process just like everyone else,” Maggiano says. “As soon as it was announced that Jeff was resigning, we started getting inquiries. … We figured she would apply but we were up front with her that we were going to take our time to make this a fair and open process so that whomever was ultimately appointed, was legit. We wanted a legitimate and fair process and that was my commitment to the process to kind of be the fairness czar.”
So thorough, in fact, was the process, it was a source of angst for some GMCW singers who’d grown to love Kano and feared she might resign if not given the job.
“We were really happy and really relieved when the news came out that she’d been appointed,” says Eric Peterson, a tenor who’s been in the Chorus five years and is also a member or the Rock Creek Singers, a smaller chamber ensemble within the overall Chorus that Kano has directed for a decade. “I don’t know if she might have stayed either way. She was very careful not to say, but she has a doctorate in choral conducting and has studied and worked with some of the most famous conductors in choral music so I can’t imagine she would have just stuck around indefinitely. … When the news came out, there was a huge sigh of relief and a lot of applause.”
Kano, who splits her time between Washington and the Big Apple directing the 80-voice New York City Master Chorale, says she’s thrilled.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store,” she says. “I really get the best of all worlds here.” She says there was “no yearning” for the chief role even when people started asking her if it was a goal after she’d been with the Chorus a couple years, though she also says when Buhrman announced he was stepping down, applying herself was “a no brainer.”
“Having been here so long, I have that institutional memory and I’ve seen how we’ve grown musically,” she says. “I recognize the things that have really worked and well the audience appreciated this or that. … My goal is to continue with a phenomenal musical product to drive home our overall message of equality.”
When the choir at MCC-D.C. met Michael Fisher Jr., who just started as the church’s “minister of worship arts,” they didn’t know his sexual orientation. The church for years had two choirs with as many as 40-50 singers in the combined group. It has dwindled some in recent years without a full-time director. Several former singers are now active with former director Shirli Hughes’ group Ovation.
Fisher is classically trained on the cello and piano and has worked with several well-known gospel acts. What struck them initially during an audition rehearsal, Herrell says, was his stellar musical ability.
“We just kind of assumed he probably was gay but we didn’t know,” Herrell says. “We had a rehearsal with him and it just went really, really well. He can play the piano like nobody’s business and he’s also just so vocally talented too. … He had a way of teaching that was very easy and he was able to make himself understood. Within like 15-20 minutes, he had us singing a song he’d taught us. It was a great experience and I think everyone was just excited to find someone that talented interested in the position because we have a history of a very strong music program here and it’s something we definitely want to uphold.”
As with the GMCW, the search committee, pastoral staff and board of directors at MCC-D.C., founded in 1970, took its time in the search. All the church’s former choir directors have been LGBT.
Justin Ritchie co-directed the MCC choir for several years with Darius Smith but neither were interested in doing the job full-time. In a series of evaluations, the congregation there — which Herrell guesses is “probably less than 1 percent straight” — wanted someone in this new position in a full-time capacity.
Rev. Cathy Alexander, MCC’s minister of congregational connections, says the process was exceedingly thorough and says she’s excited to see Fisher join the staff. (Fisher did not respond to multiple attempts to interview him before this week’s Blade deadline. He’s started his new post but will be officially welcomed at special services at 9 and 11 a.m. on Sept. 14. The church’s senior pastor, Rev. Dwayne Johnson, also did not respond to interview requests.)
“First and foremost, he’s a very spiritual man, very dedicated to serving God, that came through first and foremost,” Alexander, who identifies as gender non-conforming, says. “He has an amazing ability, he writes his own songs and travels and sings. … He’s very personable and has already established a good relationship with the choir and dance ministries. He grew up in the church playing music, he’s a good fit for this position and his wife is just lovely, too.”
But despite thorough searches and stellar musical qualifications, is there any long-term concern about having the city’s largest LGBT choirs — the Lesbian and Gay Chorus of Washington having folded in 2010 (former director C. Paul Heins is now the GMCW associate director) — under straight leadership?
While several say it is a bit unusual and perhaps a sign of the times, nobody the Blade interviewed said it’s an important distinction. Kano, especially, several GMCW members said, has never inspired any doubt about her commitment to LGBT rights.
Ritchie, who has sung for years with the GMCW in addition to his duties at MCC, concurs.
“Thea has great gay sensibility if you will and she’s a great programmer,” he says. “She’s an artist and the Chorus couldn’t be in better hands. I think it will be a seamless transition with her in charge.”
Ritchie, who has yet to meet Fisher, says the role at MCC is a wholly different situation. He says because the role requires someone who can both conduct and accompany and who is stylistically diverse, it was a hard position to fill.
“At 9, it’s more like high church, then at the 11 o’clock service it’s straight-up black gospel and there are not many people who can do it all. I kind of faked my way through it for a year and a half … but it’s such a varied position.”
The spiritual component only further complicates the matter, Ritchie says.
“Concerned is probably too strong of a word and it’s really not my business anymore, but I would want to be sure that whomever they might have hired for this position has the best of intentions,” he says. “Is it somebody who really feels called to this church or is it just somebody who needed a job? That would be understandable, but it would be my hope that they would make sure it’s not somebody who’s coming in to convert anybody. It’s just so hard to fully understand the gay faith community in the context of past hurt or past injury if you haven’t experienced it that way. … There has to be not only the musicality, but also the safety and the celebration of who LGBTQ people are.”
Neither appointment is an anomaly, as far as anybody can tell. Other choruses within the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) have had straight directors, although it is certainly not the norm.
Robin Godfrey, GALA’s executive director and a lesbian, says she’s known of some straight conductors but says she’s not given much thought to how widespread the phenomenon might be.
“It’s certainly not the sort of thing we would ask,” she says. “In some cases, there may be straight conductors you may know of, but how many, I really don’t know.”
Rev. Kharma Amos, associate director of formation and leadership development for Metropolitan Community Churches and a Fairfax, Va., resident and lesbian, says she has no idea how many of the Fellowship’s 200-plus congregations around the world might have straight music ministers. She says a “wild guess” might be that “30 or 40” MCC churches in the U.S. are large enough to have full-time music staff. All candidates for ordination in the Fellowship go through classes she helps lead and she says about two of the 15 who come through each year identify as straight.
“It’s hard to generalize as to the whys, but often they’ve identified the inclusivity MCC exhibits as being extraordinary compared to other denominations and they felt a calling to social justice issues,” Amos says.
Ritchie says he knows of several paid musicians at MCC churches in Minneapolis and Ft. Lauderdale who are straight though he says, “the vast majority are LGBT.”
Kano, who grew up in the San Francisco area, knew many gay dancers studying ballet growing up and says “it was just never an issue.” She eventually came to consider herself an LGBT activist and says upon finishing graduate school at UCLA and applying to conducting jobs “all over,” a friend in Los Angeles heard GMCW had an open position 10 years ago.
“My first thought was, ‘Why would they want me,’ but he said, ‘Well, you’re a gay activist and always have been,’ so I sent in my resume and fast forward, here we are. That’s how it came to be on my radar,” she says.
Nobody the Blade spoke to said the appointments raised any eyebrows within the two choirs.
“When DOMA was struck down, she was the one who was there singing with us at the Supreme Court all day,” Peterson says. “She was wiping tears and it wasn’t just for us, it was for the entire movement. … She’s such an ally, I really do consider her part of the LGBT umbrella. I don’t think of many straight people in my life that way, but she is an exception.”
Herrell, too, says he “didn’t hear anybody say anything” about Fisher and potential concerns.
If anything, Herrell says it would have been hypocritical for MCC to have not considered a straight candidate considering the church’s mantra toward being open and welcoming to all.
“There’s really no valid reason why a heterosexual can’t be the music director for a gay church especially when the message we’re hearing from the pulpit every Sunday is one of radical inclusiveness. … I can honestly say, there was nobody who was like, ‘Hold on, let’s slow down here,’ — nothing like that was said that I know of.”
Although most would agree that’s the politically correct answer, is it any different when an organization’s entire raison d’être is LGBT based? As Whitman-Walker Health has broadened its scope in recent years and has a straight executive director (Don Blanchon), will this phenomenon spill over into our traditionally gay churches and arts organizations? Some national gay rights groups, like the National Black Justice Coalition, have directors who are straight allies. And Washington’s LGBT amateur sports teams are reporting higher levels of straight participation than ever before, Team D.C. officials say. Lines everywhere seem to be blurring as the gay rights movement gains increased footing.
Gay directors applied for both jobs but those involved in the searches said when all factors were considered, Kano and Fisher were the best fits.
“Of the five finalists, I can say yes, some of them were gay,” Maggiano says. “But we really didn’t have a cut-and-dried scenario where all other factors were equal and we had to decide on that. We did not discriminate on gender, religion, sexual orientation or anything else. … We just didn’t find ourselves in a situation where it was a gay versus a non-gay issue.”
But what does it mean? Is it coincidence? A sign of the changing times? The first steps in the what could be a gradual “de-gaying” of our traditional LGBT safe spaces? As a point of context, Dignity Washington, a local LGBT Catholic group, has had a straight choir director for years. Members say it’s never been an issue. She’s low key, though, and asked that her name not be used as she also directs music in local Roman Catholic parishes and doesn’t want to risk drawing the ire of anti-gay church leaders, a threat organist and choir director Mike McMahon of National City Christian Church knows is very real. He lost his job at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Arlington after he married his male partner earlier this year.
He says there are many factors at play with the new choir directors, but says it ultimately shouldn’t be an issue.
“What we’re seeing is the results of the mainstreaming of gay culture,” McMahon says. “It’s a thing that cuts both ways. Once it’s OK for gay people to have a certain job, then it’s OK for straight people to have these more traditionally gay jobs as well. With (Kano) especially, the issue is not that she’s straight or that she’s a woman. She’s been immersed in that environment for so many years and has shown that she has the chops to make those guys sound amazing. I think it’s great.”
Anthony Heilbut knows what it’s like to be considered an outsider. He’s a self-described Jewish atheist but as a life-long lover of black gospel music who eventually came to be considered an expert on the subject as a producer of many traditional gospel acts and author of “The Gospel Sound” and “The Fan Who Knew Too Much.”
Heilbut says many may not realize the long tradition “children,” historically the term black Christians used for the low-key gays and lesbians in their ranks, have of being choir directors.
“In gospel music, the greatest choir directors have almost universally been gay men,” Heilbut, who’s gay, says. “This situation here in D.C. strikes me as just a curiosity and a fascinating situation because it really should not be hard to find a gay choir director of all things. … This is just one area in which gay men have always excelled, going all the way back to James Cleveland and before.”
Maggiano says GMCW is “actually ramping up our gayness.”
“I know it might sound strange considering we just hired a straight female, but what we’re really doing is inviting people to come be gay with us. Let your hair down. Put on a wig. In this market, it’s cool to be gay. … We would actually love it if in 10 years we had half gay men and half straight singing ‘YMCA.’ How great would it be to see some straight guy just wailing on Beyonce? What a great place we would have come to and what a great statement that we got here through music. … That’s our goal. Not to stay internal and stay exclusively gay, but to make gay cool for everybody.”
Godfrey puts it more succinctly.
“There’s no reason it has to be an issue,” she says.
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Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation
At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion
I didn’t really start listening to rap until my college years. Like many queer Black children who grow up in the closet, shielded by puritanical Christianity from the beauty of a diverse world, I longed to be myself. But the affirming references I could pull from — in moments of solitude away from the wrath and disdain of family and friends — were in theater and pop music.
The soundtrack to my teenage years was an endless playlist of pop divas like Lady Gaga and Beyoncé, whose lyrics encouraged me to sashay my hips anytime I strutted through a long stretch of corridor.
I was also obsessed with the consuming presence of powerful singers like Patti LaBelle, Whitney Houston, and the hypnosis that was Chaka Khan. My childhood, an extrapolation of Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays spent in church groups, choir practices, and worship services, necessitated that I be a fan of throaty, from-the-stomach singing. But something about the way these artists presented themselves warmed my queer little heart. LaBelle wore avant garde geometric hairdos paired with heavily shoulder-padded blazers. Houston loved an elegant slender gown. And Khan? It was the voluminous red mane that gently caressed her lower back for me.
Listening to rap music in college was a political experience. My sociology classes politicized me and so it was only natural that I listened to rap music that expressed trauma, joy, and hope in the Black experience. However, I felt disconnected from the music because of a dearth of queer representation in the genre.
Nevertheless, groups like Outkast felt nostalgic. While delivering hedonistic lyrics at lightning speed, André 3000 — one half of the rap duo — mesmerized with his sleek, shoulder-length silk pressed hair and colorful, flowing shirts and trousers — a style that could be translated as “gender-bending.” Despite the patriarchal presentation rampant in rap and Hip-Hop, André 30000 represented to me, a kind of rebellious self-expression that I so badly wanted to emulate but couldn’t because of the psychological confines of my conservative upbringing.
My discovery of Outkast was also sobering because it was a stark reminder of how queerness is also often used as an aesthetic in Hip-Hop while actual queer people are shunned, rebuked, and mocked. Queer people in Hip-Hop are like backstage wingmen, crucial to the development of the show but never important enough to make a curtain call.
As Hip-Hop celebrates 50 years since its inception in New York City, I am filled with joy because it’s been half a century of Black people owning their narratives and driving the culture. But it’s fair to ask: At whose expense?
A viral 2020 video shows rapper Boosie BadAzz, famed for hits like “Set It Off” and “Wipe Me Down,” rebuking NBA star Dwayne Wade and award-winning actress Gabrielle Union-Wade for publicly supporting their then-12-year-old daughter after she came out as transgender.
“Don’t cut his dick off, bro,” said BadAzz with furrowed eyebrows and a gaze that kept turning away from the camera, revealing his tarnished diamond studs. “Don’t dress him as a woman dawg, he’s 12 years. He’s not up there yet.”
The responses from both Wade and Union-Wade were a mixture of swift, sarcastically light-hearted, and hopeful.
“Sorry Boosie,” Union-Wade said to an audience during a live podcast appearance at Live Talks Los Angeles. “He’s so preoccupied, it’s almost like, ‘thou doth protest too much, Little Boos.’ You’ve got a lot of dick on your mind.”
Wade also appeared on an episode of podcast, “I AM ATHLETE,” and looked directly into the camera.
“Boosie, all the people who got something to say, J-Boogie who just came out with [something] recently, all the people who got something to say about my kids,” he said. “I thank you because you’re allowing the conversation to keep going forward because you know what? You might not have the answers today, I might not have the answers, but we’re growing from all these conversations.”
This exchange between the Wades and BadAzz highlights the complicated relationship between Black LGBTQ individuals and allies and the greater Hip-Hop and rap genres and communities. While Black queer aesthetics have long informed self-expression in Hip-Hop, rappers have disparaged queerness through song lyrics and in interviews, or online rants like BadAzz, outside the recording studio.
And despite LGBTQ rappers like Queen Latifah, Da Brat, Lil Nas X, and Saucy Santana achieving mainstream success, much work lies ahead to heal the trauma that persists from Hip-Hop’s history of patriarchy and homophobia.
“‘Progression’ will always be relative and subjective based on one’s positionality,” said Dr. Melvin Williams said in an email. Williams is an associate professor of communication and media studies at Pace University. “Hip-hop has traditionally been in conversation with queer and non-normative sexualities and included LGBTQ+ people in the shaping of its cultural signifiers behind the scenes as choreographers, songwriters, make-up artists, set designers, and other roles stereotypically attributed to queer culture.”
“Although Hip-Hop incorporates queerness in their ethos, ideas, and trends, it does not privilege the prospect of an out LGBTQ+ rapper. Such reservations position LGBTQ+ people as mere labor in Hip-Hop’s behind-the-scenes cultivation, but not as rap performers in its mainstream distribution,” he added.
This is especially true for Queen Latifah and DaBrat who existed in the genre for decades but didn’t publicly come out until 2021. Still, both faced backlash from the Black community for daring to challenge gender roles and expectations.
Lil Nas X also faced backlash for his music video “Montero” with satanic references, including one in which he slides down a pole and gives a character representing the devil a lap dance. Conservatives such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem accused him of trying to scandalize children.
“You see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am,” Nas X said in a note that accompanied “Montero.” The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
Regardless, “Montero” debuted atop the Billboard 100.
In an article published in “Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society,” scholar C. Riley Snorton posited that celebrating queer visibility in mainstream media could be a problem as this kind of praise relies on artists presenting in acceptable forms of gender and sexuality expression and encourages representation that is “read alongside…perceptions of Hip-Hop as a site of Black misogyny and homophobia.”
In the case of Frank Ocean, who came out in 2012 prior to the release of his album “Channel Orange,” his reception was warmer than most queer Hip-Hop artists because his style of music is singing, as opposed to rapping. Because of this, his music was viewed more as R’n’B or pop.
“Frank Ocean ain’t no rapper. He’s a singer. It’s acceptable in the singing world, but in the rap world I don’t know if it will ever be acceptable because rap is so masculine,” rapper Snoop Dogg told the Guardian in 2013. “It’s like a football team. You can’t be in a locker room full of motherfucking tough-ass dudes, then all of a sudden say, ‘Hey, man, I like you.’ You know, that’s going to be tough.”
So what’s the solution for queer people in Hip-Hop? Digital media.
Williams, the Pace University professor, says that being divorced from record labels allows queer artists to be independent and distribute their music globally on their own terms.
“We witnessed this fact with artists such as Azealia Banks, Cakes Da Killa, Fly Young Red, Kevin Abstract, iLoveMakonnen, Lil Nas X, Mykki Blanco, and Saucy Santana, as well as legacy LGBTQ Hip-Hop acts like Big Freeda, DeepDickCollective, and Le1f,” he said. “The music industry has experienced an increasingly mobilized market due to the rise of digital media, social networking platforms, and streaming services.”
“More importantly, Black queer Hip-Hop artists are historicizing LGBTQ+ contributions and perspectives in documentaries, films, news specials, public forums, and podcasts. Ultimately, queer people engaging in Hip-Hop is a revolutionary act, and it remains vital for LGBTQ+ Hip-Hoppers to highlight their cultural contributions and share their histories,” he added.
(Hip-Hop pioneers Public Enemy and Ice-T will headline The National Celebration of Hip-Hop, free concerts at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in D.C. on Oct. 6 and 7.)
Cuisine and culture come together at The Square
D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors
Downtown got a bit tastier when “the next generation of food halls” opened its doors on Tuesday near the Farragut West Metro stop. Dubbed The Square, its half-dozen debut stalls are a Spanish-flecked mix of D.C. favorites, new concepts, and vendor-collaborative spirit.
After two years of planning – and teasing some big-name chefs – the market is, according to the owners, “where cuisine, culture, and community are woven together.”
Behind this ambitious project with lofty aims are Richie Brandenburg, who had a hand in creating Union Market and Rubén García, a creative director of the José Andrés Group who also was part of the team of Mercado Little Spain, the fairly new Spanish-themed Andres food hall in Hudson Yards.
Food halls have come a long way since the new Union Market awakened the concept a decade ago. Instead of simply rows of vendors in parallel lines, The Square has a new business model and perspective. This food hall shares revenue between the owners and its chef partners. Vendors are encouraged to collaborate, using one software system, and purchasing raw materials and liquor at scale together.
“Our goal was two-fold: to create a best-in-class hospitality offering with delicious foods for our guests; and behind the scenes, create the strong, complex infrastructure needed to nurture both young chefs and seasoned professionals, startups, and innovation within our industry,” says Brandenburg.
The Square has embraced a more chef-forward methodology, given that the founders/owners themselves are chefs. They’re bringing together a diverse mix of new talent and longtime favorites to connect, offer guidance to each other, and make the market into a destination.
The first phase of The Square premiered this week. This phase encapsulates a selection of original concepts from well-known local chefs and business owners, and includes:
• Cashion’s Rendezvous – Oysters, crab cakes, and cocktails, from the owners of D.C. institutions and now-closed Cashion’s Eat Place and Johnny’s Half-Shell (Ann Cashion and John Fulchino).
• Jamón Jamón – Flamenco-forward food with hand-cut jamón Iberico, queso, and croquetas, sourced by García himself.
• Brasa – Grilled sausages and veggies are the stars here. Chef García oversees this Spanish street-food stall as well.
• Taqueria Xochi – Birria, guisado, and other street tacos, plus margs. Named after the ruins of Xochitecatl in Central Mexico, and from a Jose Andres alum.
• Yaocho – Fried chicken, juices, sweets, and libations.
• Junge’s – Churros and soft serve ice cream. Brandenburg and García both have a hand in this stall.
• Atrium Bar – The central watering hole for drinks. Atrium Bar serves cocktails, wine, and beer curated by The Square’s Beverage Director Owen Thompson.
“Having been part of Jose Andres’s restaurant group and getting to know Ruben and Richie, it’s amazing to see how their values align with ours at Taqueria Xochi. Seeing all these incredible chefs heading into Square feels like a full-circle moment,” said Geraldine Mendoza of Taqueria Xochi.
Slated for fall 2023, the next round of openings includes Flora Pizzeria, Cebicheria Chalaca, KIYOMI Sushi by Uchi, Shoals Market (a retail hub), and more. Additionally, chef Rubén García’s Spanish restaurant, Casa Teresa, will soon open next door to The Square.
The Square is just one of a handful of new food halls blossoming in and around D.C. Up in Brentwood, Md., miXt Food Hall is an art-adjacent space with tacos, a year-round fresh market, coffee, and beer. Across from Union Market is La Cosecha, a Latin marketplace with everything from street food to a Michelin starred restaurant and a festive vibe. Closer to The Square is Western Market by GW University, which opened in late 2021 with a buzzy, relaxed style.
For now, the Square is open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Square plans to open on weekends and extend hours to offer dinner service in the coming months. A few alfresco seats will accompany the hall.
Charles Busch reflects on the paths he didn’t take in new book
‘Leading Lady’ a riveting memoir from legendary entertainer
“Charles, I’m telling you, I go to plays in rat-infested basements where I’m the only one who shows up,” the late queer icon Joan Rivers once told the queer, legendary playwright, actor, director, novelist, cabaret performer and drag icon, Charles Busch. “I can see the actors peeking through the curtain and groaning, ‘Oh God, that old bitch in the fur coat is here. Does that mean we’ve gotta go on?’”
Busch reminded Rivers that she’d seen him perform in a rat-infested basement.
This is just one of the many stories that Busch, born in 1954, tells in his riveting memoir, “Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy,” which comes out on Sept. 12.
“Leading Lady” is a page-turner. Some of its tales of Busch’s life and career, such as his account of a Christmas party with Rivers as a guest, are dishy. Others, like his memories of trying to care for his beloved Aunt Lil, when he knew she was dying, would make even the Wicked Witch in Oz tear up.
The memoir, is, as Busch says on his website (charlesbusch.com), the story of “a talented artist’s Oz-like journey.”
“Leading Lady” isn’t linear. This isn’t a detriment. Busch deftly intertwines memories of his life and career from his mom dying when he was seven to being raised by his loving Aunt Lil to being the author and star of the cult classic “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom” to watching Kim Novak handle fans to being the Tony-nominated writer of “Tales of the Allergist’s Wife” to being creative during the pandemic.
“Storytelling is a huge part of my life,” Busch told the Blade in a lengthy phone interview, “I get into various adventures and, I think, this could be a good story to tell.”
Interviewing Busch is like chatting with a fab storyteller over coffee or a glass of wine. Except that you’re talking to a legend who’s entertained and inspired queers (and discerning hetero audiences) for decades. (I’m wearing my “Vampire” T-shirt as I write this.)
As a playwright, Busch writes “linear” plays, with a beginning, middle and an end, he said. As a cabaret singer, “the way I sing songs is telling a story,” Busch said.
Since childhood, he’s been creating vivid scenes in his imagination. From early on, Busch has felt as if he’s both a spectator and star in the movie of his life.
It seemed inevitable that he’d write a memoir. It’s the ultimate form of storytelling. “You reach a certain point in your life,” Busch said, “where you’re more reflective and see your life as a whole.”
“You reflect on the paths you didn’t take,” he added.
Busch spent his childhood in Hartsdale, N.Y. He had two older sisters, Betsy and Margaret. His mother’s death was devastating for Busch. His Aunt Lil and Joan Rivers have been among the women who have been “mothers” to Busch since his mom died.
Once, Busch said he and Rivers dined with friends. “Joan Rivers said ‘I wish I had a gay son I could phone at midnight and discuss whatever movie was on TCM,’” he recalled.
Busch would have loved to have been Rivers’s “gay son.”
Life in Hartsdale was hard for Busch after his mother passed away. His father was often absent and showed little interest in his children.
Things were miserable for Busch when his grandmother, for a time, cared for the family. He knew, as a boy, that he was gay and hated going to school where a movie-and-theater-loving kid who liked to draw wasn’t one of the cool kids.
Yet Busch forgave his “father’s failings,” he writes in “Leading Lady, “because he gave me the theater.”
Busch became entranced with the theater when his father, an aspiring opera singer who performed in summer stock, took him to the old Metropolitan Opera House in New York City to hear Joan Sutherland sing the role of Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.”
Busch was saved from a life of boredom and bullying when Aunt Lil, his mother’s sister, took him to live with her in Manhattan. There, like Auntie Mame, she raised him. She prodded him into applying to the High School of Music and Art in New York City. He was accepted there.
After high school, Busch graduated with a bachelor’s degree in drama from Northwestern University in 1976.
“My Aunt Lil is the leading lady [of the title of his memoir],” Busch said, “she was the most influential person in my life.”
One of the reasons why Busch wrote “Leading Lady” was to paint a full portrait of her. “It was important that it not be this kind of gauzy, sentimental memory piece,” he said, “making her out to be a saint.”
Aunt Lil adopted Bush when he was 14. Her goal was that he would go to college, become independent, be a survivor – make a place for himself in the world.
“I don’t know what would have happened if she hadn’t stepped in,” Busch said.
“She was very intellectual,” he added, “I’ve never met anyone [else] with such a pure devotion to thinking. It was a little intimidating.”
Aunt Lil’s standards for caring – for giving of oneself – were so high that it was almost impossible to meet them. “She believed that you should anticipate what people would need,” Busch said, “before they told you.”
Looking back, Busch is most proud of himself when, “I’ve gone past my natural self-absorption,” he said, “when I’ve thought of someone else.”
Busch is being too hard on himself. In “Leading Lady,” and when interviewed, he’s caring and curious as well as witty, savvy, and as you’d expect, a bit campy.
His sister Margaret died recently. “She declined gradually over nine months,” Busch, said, choking up, “I gave her my bedroom and I slept on my sofa.”
Like many of her generation, Aunt Lil didn’t understand queerness or drag. But she loved Busch. She didn’t go to see his productions, he said. “She could have gone like other parents,” he said, “and been tight-lipped. And said something nice that she didn’t believe.”
But “she didn’t want to lie or be hurtful,” Busch added, “so, for her, it was: can’t I just love and support you, and not go?”
Aunt Lil didn’t get Busch’s sexuality. But she knew about secrecy. Busch learned of a terrifying secret that his aunt had long kept hidden. In the 1930s, during the Depression, Aunt Lil worked as a nurse. One day, when she worked overtime, one of the patients suffered a burn. She had to leave nursing. “Her sister in a nasty mood revealed this,” Busch said, “Aunt Lil never discussed it.”
In the 1970s, Busch had trouble getting into theater because there were only roles for actors playing straight male characters. “The only way I could get on stage was to write my own roles,” he said, “I have a rather androgynous nature.”
Busch found that the feminine within him was a place of authority and strength. “I’m fine when I play male characters,” he said, “but I’m better when I play female characters.”
Why this is so liberating for him is a bit of a mystery to Busch. “But I accept and love it,” he said.
Times have changed since Busch made his first big splash with “Vampire Lesbians of Sodom.” “In 1985, being a drag queen was considered a negative,” Busch said, “my generation of drag performers bristled at being referred to as drag queens.”
Busch no longer bristles. “I feel like the characters,” he said, “I enjoy costumes and getting the right wig.”
“But, I go from male to female not through trickery or anything visual, I transfer through my soul.”
In “Leading Lady,” Busch recalls AIDS and other dark moments from the past. Many of his friends and colleagues died from AIDS. “AIDS was the World War II of our generation,” he said.
But Busch, in his memoir and in his life, isn’t only looking back. He’s very much in the present. Busch is embarrassed to say he was lucky. During the pandemic, devastating to many, he made art. He did play readings on Zoom and finished writing “Leading Lady” which he’d worked on for 14 years.
During the pandemic, Busch with Carl Andress co-wrote and co-directed the movie “The Sixth Reel.” The film’s cast includes Busch, Julie Halston (Busch’s longtime muse), Margaret Cho and Tim Daly.
Busch describes the film, an homage to the Hollywood madcap movies of the 1930s, as “a comic, caper movie.”
“I play a disreputable dealer in movie memorabilia,” Busch said, “a legendary lost film is found, and I see it as my ticket out of debt.”
The “Sixth Reel” is playing from Sept. 21 to Sept. 27 at the LOOK Dine-In Cinema West 57th Street in New York City.
“I hope the run in New York will encourage people to distribute this little movie,” Busch said.
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