Museum of the Bible
400 4th St., S.W.
The team behind the new Museum of the Bible, which opened last weekend in Washington, said all along they wouldn’t “mention homosexuality, abortion or any other political commentary” and they’ve stayed true to their word.
The controversial museum — housed in a massive, 430,000-square-foot building three blocks from the U.S. Capitol in Southwest Washington — was established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2010. In 2012, museum personnel purchased the former Washington Design Center for $50 million and spent years having it converted into an eight-story structure with two basement levels and two new floors added to the existing rooftop at a total cost of more than $500 million.
All the effort and expense shows. This is no amateur endeavor despite the bumps in the road the billionaires behind it — it’s been largely funded by the Green family, owners of Hobby Lobby — have encountered along the way.
During a media preview last week, a few finishing touches were still being applied. Ladders and cans of paint were seen in several corridors much like they were during media previews for the National Museum of African-American History and Culture that opened last year. The museum’s communications team didn’t hesitate in including the Blade. The Blade has also learned of at least one openly LGBT person on staff at the museum.
Steve Green is president of Hobby Lobby and chair of the Museum of the Bible board. He told media at the museum on Nov. 15 that the purpose of the museum was “not about us espousing our faith.”
“The example I primarily use is in the Bible, it says, ‘In the beginning God created …,’ so we tell that story on the narrative floor but it’s not our position to tell you when God created, so we don’t take a position on whether that’s true or not. We just say, ‘Here’s the Bible story,’ and then you can decide what you do with it.”
Another recurring theme from staff is that the museum is “non-sectarian” and they’ve gone to great lengths to take an ecumenical approach. One exhibit features items on loan from the Vatican and the museum boasts what it claims is the world’s largest private collection of retired Torah scrolls and the second-largest private collection of Dead Sea Scroll fragments, the earliest-surviving manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible.
“Obviously we’re trying to be inclusive,” Green said. “We have the Israel Antiquity Authority, we have the Vatican having space in here, so it’s not about a faith tradition. We have a love for the Bible and we want to include everyone. We want atheists to feel comfortable coming in here because they’ll know, in essence, we’re not pushing our agenda. We’re just trying to educate them on a book. If you wanna believe this book is a novel, fine. Just be educated on what you believe and that’s what we wanna do.”
The scope alone is impressive. Museum personnel claim to read every placard, see every artifact and experience every activity in the museum, it would take nine days at eight hours per day.
And while some have expressed relief that the museum has taken a vastly more academic approach than, say, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Ky., which presents the Genesis account of creation as literally true, the Museum of the Bible is still wildly controversial.
The museum has come under intense criticism — the Washington Post’s coverage has been especially tough — for several issues. Among them are:
• what some consider the Green family’s baggage from their 2014 fight against mandatory employer-provided birth control that resulted in a Supreme Court ruling that struck down the contraceptive mandate part of the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to cover certain contraceptives for female employees. The Greens have paid for newspaper ads espousing the “real meaning” of Christmas and have donated $70 million to Oral Roberts University and other evangelical institutions that lean toward the fundamentalist end of the religious spectrum according to Vox and other outlets.
• a $3 million fine imposed by the Department of Justice in a civil action suit that said the Greens, who started collecting in 2009, had obtained thousands of Iraqi artifacts they obtained without the necessary clearances in 2010 and 2011. The Greens said the seized artifacts were never part of the museum collection and said they’ve “engaged the leading experts in abiding the highest standards of museum guidelines (from the Association of Art Museum Directors) and other organizations. Those are the policies that we will adhere to here at the museum,” Green said last week.
• accusations that Hobby Lobby owners neglected to do their due diligence in acquiring the artifacts that got them in trouble. At the time, they said, “the company was new to the world of acquiring these items and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process. This resulted in some regrettable mistakes. The company imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.” According to museum tax records cited by the Washington Post, Hobby Lobby donated about $201 million in artifacts to the museum, about 2,800 of the Greens’ 40,000-piece collection.
• a sense that the museum’s mission has shifted from inception to fruition. Perhaps, some would argue, for the better, yet it casts doubts on the owners’ intentions. According to Vox, in 2011, the museum’s nonprofit tax filings stated its purpose was “to bring to life the living Word of God, to tell its compelling story of preservation and to inspire confidence in the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.” By 2013, the wording said simply that “we exist to invite all people to engage with the Bible.” “It felt in the last few years like they were moving from running in the primary to running in the general election,” says Matthew Vines, a prominent gay evangelical writer. “Now you’re going to focus on reaching the center and not just activating the base anymore. Now it feels more like a normal, general-election campaign.”
• the role of the National Christian Foundation, a Georgia-based organization with a mission to “advance God’s kingdom,” that has given millions of dollars annually to churches and civic groups, many of which, according to the Washington Post, are “engaged in court fights against same-sex marriage, abortion rights and other social policies.” The foundation directed about $163 million to the museum between 2013-2015 according to the Post, which cited tax returns for its information. While the museum touts that 50,000 donors have given money to the museum, which does not charge admission and is registered as a public charity, 89 percent of 2016 donations came from the National Christian Foundation; it was 96 percent in 2015, Museum President Cary Summers confirmed to the Post.
• several claims of dubious action made by Candida R. Moss, a theology professor at the University of Birmingham, and Joel S. Baden, a professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale Divinity School, in their new book “Bible Nation: the United States of Hobby Lobby” in which, according to the Post, they claim the Greens have “exploited tax-exempt rules to financially benefit from their acquisitions” and “have probably purchased forgeries, items of questionable provenance and possibly even looted antiquities.” The book also claims the Green Scholars Initiative has hired a disproportionate number of scholars with similar evangelical backgrounds and that while they maintain the Greens are well-intentioned, they accuse them of dumbing down on biblical scholarship. That they “believe it is possible to tell the story of the Bible without interpretation betrays not only their Protestant roots and bias,” the authors write, “but also their fundamentally anti-intellectual orientation.”
It’s a concern echoed by some LGBT believers as well. Because the museum just opened and few have had a chance to experience it directly, some were hesitant to say much although concerns were expressed.
Fred Davie, vice president of Union Theological Seminary, said the Bible is not a simple book.
“The way these ancient texts have been put together and then blessed by various religious bodies is very, very complicated,” Davie, who’s gay, said. “We have to be careful because most believers’ understanding of scripture in my experience is pretty much at a very basic, almost Sunday school level. … The Bible as we know it has been used to do lots of bad things to God’s creation, both creatures and flora and fauna throughout history — everything from enslaving people to denigrating women and relegating them to a lesser roles to all forms of oppression against LGBT folks.”
Davie said he’s been encouraged by media accounts he’s read that state the museum staff has attempted to be non-partisan and ecumenical, but also said the whole concept of a museum such as this could be problematic.
“You want to try to give them credit for making scripture accessible to large numbers of people and to make it popular … but it is very complex and to attempt to present the museum as an amusement is fraught with pitfalls. If they have tried to be balanced, you know, God bless them, but what I worry about is that it will simply reinforce a Sunday school, simplistic notion of scripture.”
Davie says faulty and overly simplistic interpretations of scripture historically have been used to marginalize many such as African Americans, women and gays. To approach the museum as a vehicle for entertainment, he says, could backfire with similar consequences.
Despite the curators’ claims that they aren’t getting into controversial issues such as homosexuality and abortion, the museum doesn’t tiptoe around all controversy. The second floor is devoted to the “impact of the Bible” and the “Bible in America” and goes from the book’s role in the formation of the United States culminating with “Civil Rights and beyond: equality and religious freedom.”
So why did curators delve into the issue of the Civil Rights Movement but avoid LGBT rights? The museum has exhibits devoted to topics one might not expect such as the Bible in fashion, the Bible in pop culture and others.
Seth Pollinger, director of museum content, said deciding what to include and what to leave out is an ongoing challenge for any museum, especially a new one. His role is to work as a liaison between the designers and scholars and curators. He said the team worked hard to assemble content that is “authentic and sincere and on track with reliability and constructive to the overall message of how everything fits together.”
As for possible LGBT issues in the future, Pollinger said, “I think we’re working on it.”
“I think these are the kinds of discussions that we hope to have and areas we hope to grow in in the future,” he said.
Was there a sense that some topics such as LGBT rights and the Bible might be easier to avoid because they’re so divisive? Pollinger said yes and cites how the Bible historically was used both to justify and condemn slavery, though no pro-slavery items or exhibits are in the museum.
“That was one example where we had to weigh whether or not we could do that from a social standpoint and present those things without doing something that would be offensive,” he said.
He also said that even with eight floors and 430,000 square feet, space is always an issue.
“You want to make sure you’re able to cover a wide spectrum of views and in some cases we felt like we had a very small amount of real estate available,” Pollinger said. “In the future, as we start to feature a balance of views within a small space, we can have more dialogue on that. We just felt that for opening day, we just didn’t have that all solved yet.”
Matthew Solari of BRC Imagination Arts worked on two animated films shown at the museum, one on the Old Testament, another on the New. He’s worked on similar projects for other major museums such as the Kennedy Space Center, the Epcot pavilions and more.
“When we were deciding whether this was something we wanted to throw our energies and talents into, we had several escape hatches at various points along the way where we could have gone the other direction and left,” Solari said. “But we never did. We never felt pressured in any way to say or do something we felt was betraying the promises that were made to us as storytellers in the beginning and also what we thought were going to be stories that were going to be welcoming and kind to people as opposed to people that were going to be finger wagging and thou shalt not. We weren’t interested in doing any of that kind of stuff and we were given a very wide berth. They were an excellent client to work with.”
Vines, founder of the Reformation Project, an agency that works to advance LGBT inclusion in the church, who came to prominence with the 2014 publication of his book “God and the Gay Christian: the Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships,” said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the Museum of the Bible.
He points to recent events in the evangelical world in which World Vision, a “sponsor-a-child” program, backtracked quickly when about 10,000 evangelicals threatened to pull their child sponsorships if the organization opened its doors to hiring gay staff, and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a college campus ministry, which took a renewed and harder stance against LGBT-affirming staff last fall.
“Culturally these groups are very similarly situated in terms of their support bases and … I find it encouraging that the Museum of the Bible did not feel compelled to do something similar. I could easily see a number of donors wanting to put strings on their donations and say there had to be one part of the museum that said marriage was one man, one woman for life,” Vines said. “I don’t know the politics and dynamics of those conversations but clearly that didn’t end up happening and I just appreciate, not even knowing all the back story, that the museum is not taking an oppositional position. That is a kind of progress.”
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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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