Connect with us

a&e features

Marsha P. Johnson and pal Sylvia Rivera key players in Stonewall legacy

Filmmaker, family, young trans people recall New York LGBT icons

Published

on

Marsha P. Johnson, gay news, Washington Blade
Marsha P. Johnson’s family says the criminal justice system in New York failed her. (Photo by Randy Wicker)

Ten-year-old Xander came out as nonbinary-femme this year to their elementary school. Transgender service member Terece began transitioning to female while still a sailor on active duty. Both recognize their historical debt to Stonewall activist Marsha P. Johnson.

According to many sources and records, Johnson was an African-American self-identified drag queen and regular at New York’s Stonewall Inn, a mafia-owned gay bar catering to a crowd of mostly queer minorities, gender non-conformers and homeless youth. 

On June 28, 1969, the bar was raided by police and many reported Johnson and others fought back, resulting in rioting and later a commemorative march that would evolve into modern Pride parades. 

Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, a trans woman of color and her friend, would go on to found STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a charity and shelter for homeless transgender teens. 

After decades of activism punctuated by poverty, homelessness and mental illness, Johnson died in 1992 under suspicious circumstances. Rivera would die 10 years later from liver cancer after a lifetime devoted to trans activism. 

But it’s a history Millennial and Gen Z genderqueer youth like Terece and Xander have had to learn on their own.

“I have heard of Stonewall,” says Xander, who uses they/them pronouns. “I’m actually reading a book about the Stonewall riots … and I listen to a queer history podcast.”

“I know a little about the Stonewall uprising,” Terece says. “I’m learning on my own. I went to school in the ‘90s … so anything regarding LGBT rights has been self-study in my adult life now.”

Both are aware of its impact on their lives. 

“I am aware of Marsha P. Johnson and her role in the Stonewall events,” Terece says. “To me Marsha is a trans woman of color who saw abuse and misjustice within her community and decided to take a stand. She is a figure of which we look to for guidance for how trans people should be treated.”

Xander is just starting to hear about people like Rivera and Johnson. Some previous wrongs are slowly being righted. Johnson’s likeness is front and center on a new YA book called “What Was Stonewall?” by Nico Medina. In 2018, Johnson received a lengthy obit in the New York Times in its “Overlooked” series that supplies obits of those initially overlooked at the times of their deaths. 

Albert Michaels, Johnson’s nephew (who’s straight), says Johnson’s legacy and name recognition are sadly uneven. 

“I’m finding … especially in her hometown of Elizabeth (N.J.), Marsha’s not really known there,” Michaels says. “Every time something goes on (to commemorate her) I post it to my Facebook page or post it to a community page. I mean, here, nobody really knows about Marsha, straight community, trans community or otherwise. Even when I did an interview the other day in front of Stonewall and I went inside for the first time into the bar, no one really knew about Marsha. There was one guy who knew … and yet they all had these T-shirts and were selling them for Pride. But there would be no Pride or no Stonewall if this whole event didn’t happen.”

Though he was just 8 in 1969, the weight of the loss adds emotion to his voice. 

“It’s sad to me. I went there (to Stonewall Inn) for some kind of enlightenment … and I felt very disappointed. … I never saw Marsha in New York and to this day that is one thing that I regret. That I never went to search for Marsha, never walked the streets with Marsha … and to see things through Marsha’s eyes.”

David France, director and producer of the Netflix documentary “The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson,” did meet Johnson in New York after moving there in 1981 and deeply appreciated the opportunity. 

“The queer community was still a very small and geographically bounded community and all gay life centered on Christopher Street,” he says. 

France’s voice lifts as he remembers a happier time as well as “Marsha’s joy.”

“Christopher Street had a number of prominent characters,” he says. “And the most prominent of them was always Marsha. If you got in with Marsha, you felt like you had found a home. She made you feel at home. I was introduced to her in 1981 and not that she and I were friends, but I can say she served as a kind of an ambassador’s role to newcomers as they arrived in the city. And especially to the young people that she took under her wing. And I felt that in a small way she had bestowed some of that attention on me and I especially looked up to and felt grateful for that.”

Michaels also appreciated Johnson’s motherly attention. 

“I knew Marsha all my life as a kid,” Michaels says. “When my memories shift of Marsha, I go back to the ‘70s and that 8-year-old kid.”

His early memories of Johnson and the riots add color to the often white, middle-class narratives younger generations like Terece and Xander are reading. 

“Marsha was quite blunt and quite frank with me,” Michaels says. “She would talk about harassment from police and people mistreating her and how people were evil to each other. Telling me be true to myself and don’t let anyone change me, and to get my education. Basically, the things that a mother or a father would tell their children, basic things in life to try to get you along.”

She once spoke of getting shot in the butt by a taxi driver. And of being beaten by cops and her “johns.” 

“She was straight with me,” he says. “She said you gotta be aware. And that actually helped me. That helped me be who I am today.”

Although he was young and didn’t understand the significance of it at the time, Michaels remembers Johnson coming home shortly after Stonewall frustrated and angry. 

“I think she said there was some kind of riot,” he says. “And that she was tired of ‘them pigs’ and they couldn’t take it anymore and they finally stood up for their rights.”

“Half of it went in and half of it went out, but I remember pieces of it,” he says. 

France fills in some of the gaps with his own research and personal knowledge. 

“Marsha and Sylvia were a partnership,” he says. “Marsha helped raise Sylvia … and they did everything together using different strategies.”

They built one of the first trans empowerment organizations called STAR and embraced the “people power movement” of the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he says. They envisioned it becoming the chief activist trans movement and tried to build community with other iconoclastic groups of the era such as the Black Panthers. 

France says Johnson and Rivera helped start “today’s conversation” about gender nonconformity and civil rights. 

“They were the first people who conceptualized the idea that the trans community was a distinct community,” he says. “With a deep sense of the unifying goals and needs … they organized specifically around that. I think this had not ever before been conceptualized in that way. In that way I think they were genuine revolutionaries.”

However, France describes a pervasive lack of acceptance even among gays, culminating in Rivera being ostracized from the movement. Some didn’t want “transvestites” seen as part of their efforts. Rivera jumped on the stage at the 1973 Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally (i.e. New York Pride) and argued for trans inclusion in the movement. 

France says seeing so much racism, transphobia and trans murders, especially for trans women of color, inspired him to explore Johnson’s death. He was hired by the Village Voice to investigate her murder in 1992 but never solved it. 

“I remembered Marsha and her gift and (her death) being a significant tragedy in the community from the early ‘90s. I remember it because I was up there and I knew Marsha,” he says. 

“That was a terrible year,” he says, noting he lost a partner to AIDS about the same time. “And I always felt like I had let that story down and had let Marsha down as a result. And I felt that if I could tell her story with some power I could really find a way to bring attention to this new unaddressed epidemic of violence against the trans community … that was my goal when I started the film.”

Johnson’s nephew also felt her death personally. He says the criminal justice system failed her and others in similar situations. 

“First thing I knew about her murder,” he says, “is basically from what the police report said. She was going to different community functions … and initially the police had her death down as a suicide. (Later) people were calling our house, trying to get in contact with us. They saw Marsha and (said she) didn’t appear suicidal. So, we were trying to get that report changed.”

Unfortunately, not much progress has been made in the investigation.

“As far as we know, it’s in some kind of limbo,” France says. “Does that mean it is still an active file? They will not report that to us … so, we don’t know if they advanced the investigation.”

Today, Michaels attends Black Trans Lives Matters events “to lend support” on behalf of his slain, pioneering aunt.

“I think Marsha’s legacy is important to all walks of life, no matter what your sexual orientation is and no matter what your gender expression is,” he says. “You always have the people who are trying to lead the way as examples. Marsha and Sylvia, what they started; this is not over. They lit the flame, but this is not over.”

France says modern trans organizations have their origins in Johnson and Rivera’s work. 

“We would not be having this discussion today if it were not for them,” he says. “They gave us the framework for this discussion.”

Johnson’s nephew speaks of continuing her legacy. 

“I keep in touch with Sylvia Rivera’s adopted daughter, Xenia. We were talking about even starting up another program like STAR, but I’ve never done anything like that before so I have to get in contact with the right people.”

Michaels remains hopeful.

“Xenia is an advocate and she’s been keeping me up to date on what’s been going on,” he says. “And we sort of said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Sylvia and Marsha kind of rose again?’”

Advertisement
FUND LGBTQ JOURNALISM
SIGN UP FOR E-BLAST

a&e features

Hip-Hop’s complicated history with queer representation

At 50, experts say the genre still doesn’t fully welcome LGBTQ inclusion

Published

on

Rapper Lil Nas X faced backlash for his music video ‘Montero,’ but it debuted atop the Billboard 100.

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, Andr​​é 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. 

Queen Latifah dodged questions about her sexuality for years before acknowledging her partner and their son in 2021. (Photo by DFree via Bigstock)

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.)

Continue Reading

a&e features

Cuisine and culture come together at The Square

D.C.’s newest food hall highlights Spanish flavors

Published

on

(Photo by Scott Suchman)

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. 

(Photos by Scott Suchman)

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.

(Photo by Scott Suchman)
Continue Reading

a&e features

Charles Busch reflects on the paths he didn’t take in new book

‘Leading Lady’ a riveting memoir from legendary entertainer

Published

on

'Leading Lady: A Memoir of a Most Unusual Boy' comes out on Sept. 12.

“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.

Continue Reading
Advertisement
Advertisement

Sign Up for Weekly E-Blast

Follow Us @washblade

Advertisement

Popular