Hollywood was not immune to the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused studios to postpone major releases and to rethink how it does business. Here are the Blade’s top 10 stories in arts and entertainment for 2020.
10: Father knows best
Out CNN anchor Anderson Cooper announced on the air April 30 that his son Wyatt Morgan was born on April 27.
“I am beyond happy,” he told People Magazine.
Cooper, 53, host of CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” named the baby, born via a surrogate, after his father, Wyatt, who died when Cooper was 10 days old. Cooper’s mother was the late Gloria Vanderbilt, who died last year at 95.
Cooper, who finally came out in 2012 after years of speculation, plans to co-raise the baby with his ex, Benjamin Maisani, according to various sources. They broke up in 2018.
9: Pride goes global
Stymied by COVID-19 restrictions on their usual events, Pride organizers around the world united for Global Pride, an online event on June 27 organized by InterPride and the European Pride Organizers Association.
Performers included Olivia Newton-John, Deborah Cox, Kristine W, Thelma Houston, Steve Grand, the Chicks and more. Manvendra Singh Gohil, a gay Indian prince, was among the speakers.
The theme was “exist, persist, resist” and about 57 million watched the 24-hour virtual event. Todrick Hall hosted. Adam Lambert performed “Mad World.”
8: Hardly Schock-ing
After years of speculation, former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), came out as gay and was not exactly welcomed into the LGBTQ world.
Schock, 39, was elected to Congress at age 27 in 2008 and was once seen as a rising star in the GOP. He resigned in 2015 amid criticism for lavish spending including a redecorating effort of his Capitol Hill office. He was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2016 on 24 counts including wire fraud and theft of government funds but federal prosecutors reached an agreement in 2019 and charges were dropped. Schock vowed to pay back taxes and reimburse his campaign.
Schock, a gym rat almost as famous for his thirsty shirtless pics as his political career, came out in a March 5 blog on his website aschock.net that began simply “I am gay.” He maintains his innocence, said he regrets not coming out sooner but said he assumed his constituents knowing would “not go over well.”
“I also, in retrospect, realize that I was just looking for more excuses to buy time and avoid being the person I’ve always been,” he wrote.
He did not apologize for his anti-gay voting record which included votes against same-sex marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” He had a zero rating from HRC. He did say he’d support LGBT rights “in every way I could” if he were still in Congress.
Reaction was largely negative. Gays as varied as “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness to Michelangelo Signorile called him out for hypocrisy.
7: Ho-hum Oscars
The 92nd Academy Awards were one of the last major events to unfold as usual before COVID restrictions kicked into high gear. Held Feb. 9 in Hollywood, it wasn’t a particularly strong year for LGBT themes. “Parasite” took the top prize and “Joker,” Joaquin Phoenix’s tour de force, had the most nominations. “1917,” “Ford v. Ferrari” and “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” also won multiple awards.
Of the 20 acting nominees, none were LGBT although two played LGBT characters. “Pain and Glory,” from out director Pedro Almodovar, snagged two nominations.
“If 2019’s record year of inclusion for LGBTQ and LGBTQ-themed nominees was a small step forward … then nominations for Oscar 2020 are a giant lap back,” wrote Blade critic John Paul King.
It was slightly gayer at the ceremony itself. Janelle Monae and Billy Porter performed in the opening. Elton John won Best Original Song with longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin for “(I‘m Gonna) Love Me Again,” from his biopic “Rocketman.”
6: Rom-com representation
We may have been largely a bust at the Oscars, but in other branches of filmdom, there were major surprises. The New York Times rounded up six holiday-themed gay rom-coms with out with LGBT characters.
Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis starred in the Clea DuVall-helmed (DuVall is gay) lesbian coming-out comedy “Happiest Season,” which premiered on Hulu on Thanksgiving Day.
Brandon and Jake race to adopt a baby by Christmas in “The Christmas House” on the Hallmark channel. Real-life husbands Ben Lewis and Blake Lee star in “The Christmas Setup” on Lifetime, “Dashing in December” is a drama from Paramount about two men who fall in love on a ranch while Netflix has “A New York Christmas Wedding” with a bi woman in the lead and “I Hate New Year’s,” an on-demand lesbian romance set in Nashville.
Complete with same-sex kisses (!), the Times calls the deluge “a sea change for Christmas cinema, a conventionally heterosexual universe with more stories about puppies than gay people.”
5: Elliot’s new day
Elliot Page, a Canadian actor and producer known for roles in TV shows “Pit Pony,” “Trailer Park Boys,” “ReGenesis” as well as the 2005 film “Hard Candy,” came out as transgender last month.
He’d come out as a gay woman in February 2014. Page was nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for his role in “Juno” and is also the star of Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy.”
“Hi friends, I want to share with you that I am trans, my pronouns are he/they and my name is Elliot. I feel lucky to be writing this. To be here. To have arrived at this place in my life. I feel overwhelming gratitude for the incredible people who have supported me along this journey,” he wrote.
4: Queer streaming galore
Movie theaters were closed but that only pushed the streaming rage further into the forefront of the entertainment ecosystem. And if there was any gay angle to it, there’s a good chance Ryan Murphy was involved.
The full cast of the 2018 Broadway debut of Mart Crowley (who died in March at age 84) classic “The Boys in the Band” reunited for a film version that debuted on Netflix in late September. The Blade called it a strong adaptation that “preserved in full” the “strength and dignity” of the source material. Murphy produced.
The seven-episode miniseries “Hollywood” debuted in March on Netflix with Patti LuPone helming this saga about a group of aspiring actors in filmmakers in post-WWII Tinseltown. Several gay characters and themes abounded including nods to Scotty Bowers and Rock Hudson among others. It drew mixed reviews but 12 Emmy nominations. Janet Mock directed two episodes. Murphy directed just one but was creator, executive producer, and writer.
And in December came “The Prom,” a Murphy-directed musical comedy based on the 2018 Broadway musical with Meryl Streep, James Corden and Nicole Kidman about Broadway actors who head to Indiana to fight a ruling that a high school prom is being cancelled because one female student wanted to take a girl as her date. Chaos ensues.
The Blade called it a “frothy mix that exists on the thin line between camp and hokum.”
And one you may have missed (again, with Murphy involvement) is “A Secret Love,” a documentary about Terry Donahue and her partner Pat Henschel who finally go public and get married after keeping their relationship a secret from their families for six decades.
3: Epic catfight
And then, of course, we had “Tiger King,” one of the increasingly rare shows that became a true cultural phenom.
The outrageous, seven-episode Netflix docuseries tells of zookeeper Joe Exotic (who sports a peroxide mullet) and his feud with Carole Baskin who accuses him of abusing and exploiting wild animals. Watched by 34.3 million people over its first 10 days of release, it’s been called “one of” Netflix’s most successful releases ever.
Adding to the color is Exotic’s unofficial same-sex throuplehood with Travis Maldonado and John Finlay and his relationship with future husband Dillon Passage.
He’s currently serving a 22-year prison sentence for, among other things, planning to have Baskin killed.
2: Cancel Ellen!
“The Ellen DeGeneres Show” was the subject of an internal third-party investigation by Warner Media after reports that the long-running hit daytime talk show was a toxic workplace behind the scenes.
In the spring, Variety reported on alleged mistreatment of long-time crew members and in July BuzzFeed published a report alleging racism and intimidation.
After delaying her 18th-season opener, DeGeneres, 62, addressed the situation in her opening monologue on Sept. 21. “I learned that things happened here that never should have happened,” she said. “I take that very seriously and I want to say I am sorry to the people who were affected.”
She acknowledged being in a “position of privilege and power.” People magazine, citing an unnamed source, said her perfectionist tendencies “ can be difficult. … She is looking at herself to make changes.”
She vowed to “start a new chapter” with the show’s 270 employees, People reports.
Following the internal investigation, in August DeGeneres apologized to her employees via video conference and confirmed that three top producers were leaving the show. The crew applauded.
DeGeneres said in December she would be back after the holidays after testing positive for COVID-19.
1: COVID disrupts
There wasn’t a single facet of the entertainment industry spared the disruptions related to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions from drag queens to touring musicians to theater producers and performers to the entire movie and TV industry, which soon ran out of “in the can” content to air or stream.
Although the competition part of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” season 12 was already taped and airing, the reunion and finale were taped — and cleverly edited — via Zoom.
Queer artists as diverse as Billy Gilman, Melissa Etheridge and the Indigo Girls offered living room concerts. Some were free, others moved to a subscription model.
With movie theaters closed for much of the year, release dates were bumped. Box office revenue reached lows not seen in 20 years and Cineworld, the world’s second-largest chain, closed in October. Many films that had planned theatrical releases were streamed instead and the bodies that govern the Golden Globes and the Oscars have made eligibility allowances. Perhaps the most prominent film to be postponed was “Wonder Woman 1984,” which will stream Dec. 25 on HBO Max, the same day it hits theaters in a move that has outraged some in the industry.
Some production units formed set bubbles in which cast and crew, subject to daily temperature checks and frequent COVID tests, quarantine from the outside world during shooting.
Resuming was a necessity and not just so people have stuff to watch coming through the pipeline. Colleen Bell, executive director of the California Film Commission, told NBC News the industry supports 700,000 jobs in California alone that accounts for $16 billion in wages.
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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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