The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore has highlighted hundreds of artists since it opened in 1995, and works by LGBTQ artists have featured prominently in both its permanent collection and changing exhibits.
From Andrew Logan’s Cosmic Galaxy Egg sculpture to Robert Benson’s blinged-out Universal Tree of Life to Judy Tallwing’s Prayer for Peace painting, LGBTQ artists have been responsible for some of most memorable creations that visitors will see, whether they know it or not.
This pattern of inclusion is part of the legacy of museum founder, director and primary curator Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, a longtime ally of the LGBTQ community. After 26 years running the museum, Hoffberger announced in July that she plans to retire in March of 2022, and AVAM’s board has launched a search for her replacement.
But unlike some museum directors who have called attention to their recent efforts to promote greater diversity in the range of artists they show, Hoffberger said she has never set out specifically to include a certain percentage of LGBTQ artists, just as she has never set a goal for featuring a certain number of minority or female artists.
She said she simply tries to find the best artists for each show, based on the perspectives they bring and the work they produce. In many cases, she said, she doesn’t necessarily know an artist’s sexual orientation, unless their work is homoerotic or intentionally refers in other ways to their identity.
Hoffberger said her resistance to quotas is not because she’s color-blind or gender-blind.
“I would say I’m color- and race-celebratory,” she said. “There’s a quote by [Canadian writer] Dorothy Maclean: ‘Humankind trend should be to unity, not uniformity.’ That pretty much sums it up. That’s how I feel. Labels like gay or straight or bi, what do they tell you about a person? Not very much. I’m not so interested in people’s sexuality. I’m interested in the person.”
Hoffberger likens curating a museum exhibit to planning a banquet: “If you’re looking to offer…as delicious a feast as possible, it comes naturally that you would have participation by extraordinary people of every stripe.”
Located at 800 Key Highway near the city’s Inner Harbor waterfront, the museum has been designated by Congress as a “national repository and educational center for visionary art,” which is defined as works “produced by self-taught individuals, usually without formal training,” which arise from “an innate personal vision that revels in the creative act itself.”
These creators, sometimes called outsider artists, often try to make sense of the world by making art with whatever materials they have at hand, whether it’s egg shells or toothpicks or more conventional artist supplies.
Hoffberger said she prefers the term visionary artists, or intuitive or self-taught, to ‘outsider.’ But she notes that it makes sense that many LGBTQ individuals turn out to be visionary artists because of the experiences they’ve had in life. She said many members of the LGBTQ community have lived outside the mainstream in one way or another, and that has both fueled their drive to make art and informed the art they make.
“How about you’re born into a family where all the girls are gorgeous and you’re the fat one? Or you have a deformity? There’s a myriad of ways that people feel out of step,” she said. “When the life experience is too big for words, it often will come out from non-artists as a creative expression for the first time because there are just no words for it.”
This doesn’t mean LGBTQ artists are inherently better than non-LGBTQ artists, she said.
“Better? No. But anyone who feels for any reason like an outsider, who has experience feeling like a stranger, always has a more in-depth take at reality because they are on some level on the outside…The point is that people who have that little bit of knowing what it is like to be outside the circle actually often will have a perspective that helps evolve and draw a circle.”
Something happens to people when they aren’t from the “established pack,” she said, that makes them look at the world differently and react differently and perhaps get more creative.
“When you’re not from the pack…when you’re forced out of conventional thinking because people are giving you pretty clear signals that you’re not like them in ways that they may even be hostile to, then you start to think more deeply because you can’t coast on being accepted in the same way. It’s not as easy.”
Hoffberger points to the work of gay filmmaker John Waters and his ability to capture what it’s like to live outside the mainstream.
“That’s what I think John Waters has done so unbelievably well,” she said. “He didn’t shock just to shock. He always had this softness for seeing value in people that other people would never have focused on. And in doing that, you sense that you are with someone who’s going to give you a break. That’s why he has yet another generation of fierce fans. This is a person who draws a big circle around the human family, and we’re living in a time when people are getting more and more narrow…So you want to be in the camp of championing more people, the beauty of more people, and the more diverse the better.”
As director and curator, Hoffberger said, she seeks out the best work she can find by visionary artists to incorporate in the museum’s exhibits. But rather than presenting works of visionary art as objects unto themselves, she curates exhibits that combine art, science, philosophy and humor, with an organizing theme for each show and an underlying focus on social justice and betterment.
In some cases, AVAM has explored themes that touch on gender, gender rights and human sexuality, including a 2005-2006 show entitled “Race, Class and Gender: 3 Things that Contribute ‘0’ to CHARACTER (Because being a Schmuck is an equal opportunity for everyone!) For exhibits such as that, Hoffberger said, works by LGBTQ artists can be particularly appropriate due to the artist’s point of view.
In other exhibits, she has focused on issues ranging from climate change to hunger to public health. AVAM’s next major exhibit, scheduled to open Oct. 9 and run until Sept. 4, 2022, is entitled “Healing & The Art of Compassion (and the Lack Thereof.)
Hoffberger said she doesn’t think sex or race are good ways to assess people.
“I don’t think your sexual orientation, I don’t think your color, I don’t think your religion, conveys any quality of character whatsoever,” she said. “That’s why I did that show, Race, Class and Gender. Three things that contribute zero to character but everybody is talking about all the time. I would think it would be more fair, since they’re approximately 50 percent of the population, if there were more women leaders. But do I think that because you are a woman leader you are going to be more spectacular just because of having a vagina? No, absolutely not. None of those things mean much to me, frankly.”
That goes for artists as well as elected leaders, Hoffberger said.
“I don’t even like it when I can look at a work of art and go, I know a woman did this. I really don’t like that,” she said. “I’d rather it just be kind of a soul, with different clothes on. I like magnificent souls, with whatever. And in that celebration, you have a great tenderness to be open to wherever that soul and beauty will manifest.”
AVAM has become a magnet for LGBTQ visitors, she said, because it’s a place where they feel comfortable with the art and the other patrons.
“What I love about the museum is that it is such a haven,” she said. “There are so many young teens that are transitioning, who come because, whether you’re wearing a burka or whatever, there’s a safety in being in our museum because there’s such a welcoming, loving vibe. You can see people who you can relate to not only walking through the museum but also in the art.”
Following are some of the LGBTQ artists whose work is or has been featured at the American Visionary Art Museum:
Andrew Logan, (1945- ) His works at AVAM: A 10-foot-tall sculpture of Divine, a tribute to the drag performer who starred in “Pink Flamingos,” “Multiple Maniacs,” “Hairspray” and other movies by filmmaker John Waters; Black Icarus, a figure suspended above the museum’s main staircase, and the Cosmic Galaxy Egg, an eight-foot-high sculpture on a plaza outside the museum’s Jim Rouse Visionary Center, inspired by the deep space images revealed by Hubble Telescope transmissions. Hoffberger is hoping to add a fourth work by Logan, a sculpture of the mythical creature Pegasus.
Logan was born in 1945, the third of five brothers in a family with one younger sister. In 1967 Logan graduated from the Oxford School of Architecture and spent one year in the United States working for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. At the age of 27, Logan gained notoriety as the co-founder, along with Baltimore’s Divine, of the Alternative Miss World contest, an inclusive beauty contest open to transvestites, the old and the young, men and women. His contest emphasized imagination and the radiance of beauty from within. In 1979, Andrew’s Alternative Miss World contest fought off legal action from another event with the help of a budding young defense barrister – future British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Logan is a tap dance and yoga aficionado and a prolific self-taught artist whose sculptures, mirrored jewelry, costumes, stage sets, and performance pieces have garnered a wide audience. He creates his art by using materials that are at hand, often incorporating mirror fragments and fabric remnants, and adding realistically sculpted heads and bodies. In the 1980’s Logan founded his own museum in Berriew, Wales, to house and display a portion of his work.
“The mirror of the universe has been my life for almost forty years,” the museum’s website quotes Logan as saying. “It has an energy like no other material. I have played with mirrors to create monuments, portraits, wall pieces and sculptural jewelry…My life is an artistic adventure.”
Judy Tallwing, (1945- ). Her work at AVAM: A painting entitled Prayer for Peace is part of the museum’s permanent collection. It was a gift of the artist in memory of Sashie Helene Hyatt.
Tallwing is an Apache elder, leatherwoman and multi-media artist who won the first International Ms. Leather contest in 1987. Born in Glendale, Ariz., Tallwing has childhood memories of living in the desert with her parents and seven half brothers and sisters, helping to hunt rattlesnakes, and selling rocks by the roadside. Like many Native American children, Tallwing attended both a Catholic girls’ school and Indian School. She has six children, 23 grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren.
Tallwing started making art as far back as she can remember. “We didn’t call it art, we called it making things to sell along the road to help the family survive. I used to watch my grandmother, grandfather, and my mother all doing various forms of what I now know is art, to sell, and I wanted to help.” The first thing of hers that sold was a bee sitting on a flower, painted on a rock. It sold for 25 cents.
In her youth, Tallwing did a little bit of everything, from running her own construction and leather production companies to being the executive director of a domestic violence victims’ program and running an animal rescue operation for 13 years. “I think an ‘aha moment’ for me was realizing I could go to college, even without much other schooling.”
Starting college at age 32 changed her life; she now holds both an associates’ and bachelor’s degree. She travels to what she calls “power places” and brings back tiny fragments from those places to put in every painting or sculpture that calls for them, including copper, silver, turquoise, garnet, prayer ashes, and minute crystal prayer beads.
“I love trying to bring the stories I’ve heard to life and to add the spiritual aspects of the stories through the medicine of different elements of nature,” she has said. “Each thing that lives on the earth has its own energy and I try to put those energies together to create a healing.”
Ingo Swann, (1933–2013). His work at AVAM: The Light Bringer, a painting in the museum’s permanent collection.
Swann is best known as a pioneer in the field of remote viewing, the practice of seeking impressions about a distant or unseen target, also described as “sensing” with the mind. Swann’s high rate of success in this field led him to co-create, along with Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ, the Stanford Research Institute of Remote Viewing and the CIA Stargate Project, launched to investigate psychic phenomena in military and domestic intelligence applications.
Swann was born high in the Rocky Mountains in Telluride, Colo., on Sept. 14, 1933. His father was a truck driver and he had two sisters. He often spoke of the beauty of his surroundings as a child, particularly the crystal-clear skies where he could see the Milky Way each night.
Swann wrote that he first experienced leaving his body at the age of three, during an operation to remove his tonsils. At that time he also became aware of seeing “butterfly lights” around people, plants, and some animals, which he later learned were auras. By nine, he wrote that he’d remotely traveled to the Milky Way. He famously claimed to have sent his consciousness to Jupiter prior to the arrival of NASA’s Voyager satellite probe and accurately described many of the planet’s features, including Jupiter’s then-unknown rings.
Swann’s paintings express his passion for exploring the mysteries of the universe and recapture his visions from leaving his body, remote viewing, and seeing auras. Swann was also a musician and a writer of several books, including his autobiography, “Penetration: The Question of Extraterrestrial and Human Telepathy” (1998). He died on Jan. 31, 2013 in New York City.
Bobby Adams (1946 – ). His work at AVAM: His photographs, scrapbooks and shrines have been featured in three exhibits.
Adams is a multimedia artist and a member of filmmaker John Waters’ group known as the Dreamlanders. He was born Robert Reid Adams on Feb. 15, 1946 in Dallas, and grew up in Baltimore. His father, a former boxer and strict disciplinarian, operated a floor sanding business in Dundalk. His “beloved and gentle” mother taught school and would eventually die by suicide in 1976.
Adams graduated in 1964 from Sparrows Point Senior High School and was able to avoid being sent to Vietnam because of a hearing problem. He became a pirate radio DJ in the late 1960s, playing at gatherings around Baltimore and spinning records for a station he dubbed W.E.E.D. He assembled elaborate scrapbooks stuffed with psychedelic collages and philosophical, often humorous, musings to illustrate his DJ patter and circulate among listeners at gigs.
In 1970, he began working with John Waters, who filmed “Pink Flamingos” at the Baltimore County farm where Adams was living. Ever since, Adams has been the filmmaker’s unofficial documentarian, taking photographs on film sets and chronicling the exploits of Waters’ band of renegades, the Dreamlanders. “I never learned how to do the camera,” notes Adams. “I just point and shoot. My approach is simple: I start with love, and the camera sees it.”
A self-professed Christmas addict, Adams makes hundreds of personalized, handmade, labor-of-love holiday cards for friends and family each year. Inspired in part by Waters’ own art making and an Edward Kienholz exhibition he chanced upon, Adams began making art in 1996, after the loss of his toy poodle, Odie. He created 50 multimedia tribute pieces to Odie and installed them throughout his waterfront cottage. Before it was displayed at AVAM, Adams’s art had never been exhibited publicly. When asked if he ever had an unrealistic hope fulfilled, he said, “Yes, being included in this show.”
Robert E. Benson, (1930 – ). His work at AVAM: The shiny Universal Tree of Life visible near the museum’s main entrance on Key Highway; the fart machine in the museum’s Flatulence exhibit; the ocean beneath Andrew Logan’s Black Icarus sculpture and the sky above it, and other creations.
Benson is a popular classical music radio host who became a prolific visual artist late in life. Born in Chicago, he served in the Army from 1951-1953 as enlisted secretary to General Mark Clark, commander-in-chief of the Far East Command. From 1953-1955 he worked for the B&O Railroad as secretary to the Manager of Industrial Development, and for two years was Assistant Manager of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Benson’s radio career began in 1958 when he was program director of WFDS-FM, which two years later became WBAL-FM. He was program director and chief announcer there until 1974, when he became Director of Audience Development for the Baltimore Symphony.
In 1975, Benson became coordinator of the Maryland State Arts Council’s Community Arts Development program working to organize county arts councils in all 23 counties of Maryland. He also was in charge of grants to music organizations and individuals, and retired from his state job in 1995. In 1979 he became morning announcer for WBJC-FM, where he remained until 1986. For 10 years beginning in 1987, Benson did programming and announcing for WJHU (now WYPR). He has collected recordings for many years, with particular interest in historic performances. He has written reviews for numerous publications, including Forecast FM, Hi Fi Stereo Buyers Guide, High Fidelity and Stereophile.
Benson lives in Glen Burnie, Md., where he grows orchids in his “underground” greenhouse, a hobby of three decades, and listens to music on his elaborate surround sound system. Since 2004 he has been working with mirrors and stained glass, creating varied art and decorative pieces.
Andrey Bartenev, (1969 –). His work at AVAM: In 2007, Bartenev won first prize in the museum’s “Bra Ball,” for his black and white rubber costume and performance.
Bartenev is a Russian performer, sculptor and experimentalist who won the Alternate Miss World pansexual beauty pageant in 2018 as Miss UFO. He was born on Oct. 9, 1969 in the northernmost Arctic Circle city of Norilsk in Siberia, an industrial town famous for its reserves and production of aluminum.
Bartenev recalls “three months of total darkness, one month of really hot summer, and 15 days each for spring and autumn.” His only sibling, a sister, was 12 years older. Bartenev’s father was a coal mining engineer and his mother was an industrial safety engineer. Both worked long hours, giving Bartenev free reign to decide how he spent his time alone.
At three, Bartenev loved scissors and began to cut images and patterns from books. “We made all our toys out of snow.” At an early age, Bartenev would organize parties for his friends who were also left alone, getting them to bring over all their pets. He used plastic to sculpt little “castles” for his mice and hamsters, and made costumes for his cats and dogs.
At 16, Bartenev moved with his family to Sochi in the south of Russia — “like Miami with mountains.” In college he studied theater and directing, graduating with high honors. His first job was directing a children’s theater near Chechnya. He also danced and performed in a local cabaret.
Moving to Moscow in 1990, Bartenev supported himself doing collages and graphics and competed in the Big Arts Festival at the Baltic Sea in 1992, where he met one of the judges, Andrew Logan, co-founder of the Alternative Miss World contest. Bartenev made a Snow Queen costume out of papier-mâché that won the top prize. Logan invited him to compete in the Alternative Miss World contest in 1995, 1998, and 2002 in London. There, Bartenev also created programs for the popular BBC children’s TV show, “Blue Peter” and re-staged his original performance show, “Botanic Ballet.” In 2007, he brought his talents to Baltimore and won first prize in AVAM’s “Bra Ball.” He has said his idea of perfect beauty is his childhood vision of “black sky and white snow.”
James Franklin Snodgrass (1922–2000). His work at AVAM: An untitled painting in the permanent collection, the gift of Robert Civello.
Snodgrass was born in Harford County, Md. in 1922. The son of a schoolteacher, he painted mannequins and traveled throughout the United States after graduating from college. During World War II, he declared himself a conscientious objector and worked as an ambulance driver for a Quaker society.
Appearing on television game shows became a peculiar “hobby” for Snodgrass, who won prize money on several occasions. In the late 1950s, he became the focus of public attention after he exposed fraudulent practices on the popular quiz show, Twenty-One. His story inspired Robert Redford’s 1994 film, “Quiz Show.”
Afterwards, Snodgrass grew increasingly reclusive and focused on his art. He was evasive, even secretive, about the untitled painting in AVAM’s collection, which took many years to complete. He died from cancer in early 2000.
Located at 800 Key Highway, the American Visionary Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Advance online purchase of a timed ticket is required to visit the museum. Visiting just the museum store, Sideshow, is free and does not require purchase of a ticket.
Camp classic ‘Mommie Dearest’ turns 40
Digital re-issue offers fans new insights, John Waters commentary
In a 2016 People magazine interview, Oscar-winning actress Faye Dunaway admitted to regretting her over-the-top portrayal of Joan Crawford in the 1981 movie “Mommie Dearest” (Paramount), newly reissued on Blu-ray and digital as part of the Paramount Presents series. Of the movie, based on the equally OTT memoir by Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina, Dunaway said, “I should have known better, but sometimes you’re vulnerable and you don’t realize what you’re getting into. It’s unfortunate they felt they had to make that kind of movie. But you can’t be ashamed of the work you’ve done.”
“That kind of movie” pretty much tanked Dunaway’s career after that. However, it also titillated and delighted countless fans upon its release and in the 40 years since. A multitude of lines have become iconic in the LGBTQ vernacular and classic scenes have become sources of endless entertainment. So, how good or bad is it?
From the minute the gloved hand of actress Joan Crawford (Dunaway) turns off her alarm at 4 a.m. and saunters into the bathroom to begin her morning routine, we know we’re in for something out of the ordinary. Dressed to kill, she heads to the studio, reading scripts and autographing photos in the back of a limo, Crawford was nothing if not devoted to her craft and fans.
She was also devoted to cleanliness, an obsession that would become one of the contributing factors in her descent. In one iconic scene, she berates a housekeeper, “I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt.”
A first-rate performer in all aspects, Crawford’s annual Christmas gift-giving extravaganza at an orphanage stirs up her desire for motherhood. Unable to conceive, the twice-divorced actress discovers she is not a candidate for adoption, despite believing she can be a mother and a father, providing both a “wonderful and advantaged life.” Her lawyer boyfriend Greg (Steve Forrest) pulls some strings and Crawford becomes mother to baby Christina.
It doesn’t take long (OK, a few years) before the cracks start to show, beginning with a birthday party for Christina (Mara Hobel, in a thankless role), complete with a carousel, an organ grinder and monkey, and a new baby brother named Christopher. Signs of tension are present in Joan’s interactions with Christina, including her bristling at her daughter’s tone of voice. When Joan catches Christina mimicking her while seated at her mother’s vanity, she flips out, butchering her hair.
Christina isn’t the only object of Joan’s aggression. Greg walks out on Joan after a disagreement, and she deals with it by cutting him out of every photo they took together. Studio head Mayer (Howard Da Silva) sends her packing, utilizing the creative differences excuse. This leads to the famous rose garden freak out (of “Tina, bring me the ax” fame). Shortly after winning the Oscar for “Mildred Pierce,” Joan discovers a wire hanger in Christina’s closet leading to the notorious “No wire hangers, ever!” beating scene.
Not even teenage Christina (Diana Scarwid), away at boarding school is safe from Joan’s wrath. After Christina is caught getting intimate with a boy, Joan removes her from the school. Back at home, where a journalist is busy writing a story about Joan, Christina and her mother have a heated argument, resulting in the classic slap sequence and the delivery of the “I’m not one of your fans” lines.
Having almost killed Christina, Joan sends her off to convent school. After graduating, Christina returns home to discover that not only has her mother remarried – to soft drink king Al Steele (Harry Goz) – but she has put her home up for sale with plans to relocate to New York. Needless to say, the mother/daughter relationship never improves, which explains Christina’s barbed-wire memoir.
Perhaps Dunaway, who worked with uneven director Frank Perry (“The Swimmer,” “Diary of Mad Housewife,” and “Play It As It Lays,” and the bombs “Hello Again” and “Monsignor”) in the past, should have known better. Regardless, “Mommie Dearest” went from shocking biopic to camp classic at light speed, and for that, we are forever grateful. Plus, with Halloween just around the corner, “Mommie Dearest” is a fab reminder of what a great (and terrifying) costume Joan Crawford can be.
In a 2015 interview with the Blade, actress Rutanya Alda, who played long-suffering maid Carol Ann in the film, talked about her surprise at first seeing the film.
“When the audience laughed, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ I was kind of taken aback because I knew (producer) Frank Yablans and (director) Frank Perry’s intention was to make this really serious drama and of course it turned into this kind of camp happening right from the get go,” Alda said. “Even Paramount was caught off guard and they didn’t know how to promote it because it became such an audience experience right away. … I was actually quite pleased because the audience really got into it. It was just amazing to me.”
Alda added that Dunaway should have embraced the campy results of the final film.
“The audience of ‘Mommie Dearest’ is a great audience and I think they are disappointed that Faye has never embraced the film,” Alda said. “If I were Faye Dunaway, I would have said, ‘Look, I was great in the part, I did great things. OK, maybe I had an over-the-top performance, but it worked, didn’t it?’ … She’s really deprived herself of a great audience of people who love the movie and it’s a detriment to her. Look at all the joy she missed.”
Blu-ray special features include commentary by drag legend Hedda Lettuce and filmmaker John Waters, “Filmmaker Focus” with Frank Perry biographer Justin Bozung, short features including “The Revival of Joan,” “Life With Joan,” and “Joan Lives On,” as well as a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer. Rating: B-
Stupid things not to do when you get old
Steven Petrow’s new book on aging is funny yet poignant
Diane Sawyer, the former ABC News anchor, gave award-winning journalist Steven Petrow some advice on what he could do to look younger. “Anchors don’t get older, they just get blonder,” she told him.
For many years, Petrow, who is gay, took Sawyer’s wisdom to heart. He had his salt and pepper hair colored. This went well, until a new colorist offered to use a new “natural” coloring process that would remove a third of his gray hair. Petrow came away “a honey brash blonde” whose hair “screamed dye job.”
This is one of the many funny, yet poignant, stories that Petrow with Roseann Foley Henry tells in “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old: A Highly Judgmental, Unapologetically Honest Accounting of All the Things Our Elders Are Doing Wrong.”
Written by Petrow with Henry, “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old” is part memoir and part manifesto.
Few things are more fraught with fear, anxiety and ageism than knowing that, if we live long enough, we’ll get old. Whether hetero or LGBTQ, no matter how much we love our parents, we don’t want to become like our folks when we’re elders.
Shortly after he turned 50, Petrow, who writes about aging, health, manners and civility, began to confront his ageist beliefs and vowed not to let aging limit or diminish his life.
As he reached the half-century mark and his parents “entered their sunset years,” Petrow began to make a list of what he called “the stupid things I won’t do when I get old.”
The list, which kept growing longer and longer, “proved to be a highly judgmental, not-quite-mean-spirited-but-close accounting of everything I thought my parents were doing wrong,” Petrow, now 64, writes in the book’s introduction.
Petrow first wrote about his list in a popular New York Times essay “Things I’ll Do Differently When I Get Old.” “Stupid Things I Won’t Do When I Get Old” grew out of the essay.
Petrow’s list is, by turns, laugh-out-loud funny and incredibly moving.
He vows not to, as his Mom did, “forgo a walker because it wrecked my outfit.”
In one chapter, he promises that, “I Won’t Become a Miserable Malcontent, a Cranky Curmudgeon, or a Surly Sourpuss.”
Yet, in other more serious chapters, Petrow says that “I Won’t Lie to My Doctor Anymore (Because These Lies Can Kill),” “I Won’t Burden My Family with Taking Care of Me” and “I Won’t Forget to Plan My Own Funeral.”
Petrow, a columnist for the Washington Post and USA Today as well as a regular New York Times contributor, talked with the Blade by phone and email.
Petrow, whose previous books include “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” “The Lost Hamptons” and “When Someone You Know has AIDS” (3rd edition), grew up in New York City.
In 1978, Petrow graduated from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in history. He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a master’s in history in 1982.
A former president of NLGJA (the Association of LGBTQ Journalists), Petrow lives in Hillsborough, N.C. His 2019 Ted Talk, “3 Ways to Practice Civility” has been viewed nearly two million times.
Petrow was born with journalism in his DNA. His father, journalist Richard Petrow, taught journalism for decades at New York University.
“My Dad was a great teacher,” Petrow said, “He traveled – got to meet people. I wanted to do what he did.”
In 1984, Petrow was diagnosed with testicular cancer. This experience is one reason why Petrow became a health care journalist. “I wanted to focus on health and medicine to teach people how to negotiate the health care system,” he said.
Negative buzz about aging is everywhere in the culture from magazine ads to birthday cards. “We start to become invisible when we’re in our 50s,” Petrow said, “this may be even more true – ageism may come earlier for gay men, and separately, more true, for women.”
“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Petrow added, quoting Bette Davis.
Research shows that the damage inflicted by ageism is real, Petrow said.
When we associate getting older with negative stereotypes about aging, our lives are shortened. “This ageism is as bad as smoking,” he said, “it takes seven years off our lives.”
It can be hard for people to find support and friends when they get old. But finding support is often more difficult for many in the queer community. There is more isolation among queer people as they age, Petrow said. “Many in their 60s lost their circle of friends during the height of the AIDS epidemic.”
Petrow seeks out multigenerational friendships. “I’m open to different perspectives,” he said, “I’ve learned so much from younger people.”
Petrow thinks outside the box of generational labels (boomers, millennials, etc.). He identifies as a “perennial.”
“Perennials are curious, engaged, passionate, and compassionate,” he said, “Millennials can be perennials. Boomers can be perennials. Anyone can choose to be a perennial.”
Petrow, who is often referred to as “Mr. Manners,” became interested in manners on a blind date in the 1990s. He and his date ended up as good friends. Through this connection, a book editor asked Petrow to do a book on gay manners.
“I’ve always been a bit like the weird person who’s fascinated with collecting and reading about arcane rules,” Petrow said. Wisdom can be found in etiquette books from decades ago, Petrow said. One of his favorite finds was in the first edition of a 1922 etiquette book by Emily Post. Just as we should think before we tweet, “It cautions people,” Petrow said, “not to write love letters that could end up on the front page of the newspaper.”
Generally, manners are the same for LGBTQ and hetero people. But there are some etiquette issues that apply specifically to queer people.
For example, what is the etiquette around revealing that someone you know – a family member, friend or co-worker is LGBTQ? “This is for an individual to do for themselves,” Petrow said, “not for any of us to do for another.”
Civility and manners are important to all of us in the COVID era, he reminds us.
“Throughout the pandemic I’ve been talking about, ‘we, not me,’ which is about thinking about others before self,” Petrow said, “And that’s really the only way we will get out of this.”
Schock treatment: an interview with Gina Schock of the Go-Go’s
Drummer on her new book and upcoming Hall of Fame induction
Too much of the Go-Go’s is never enough. In the 40 years since the all-female punk band burst on the scene with its unforgettable debut album “Beauty and the Beat” to some of the band members’ solo careers that followed its break-up to its ongoing reunion and the eye-opening 2020 documentary about the band, we just can’t get our fill.
But wait, there’s more! Gina Schock, the Go-Go’s legendary drummer (she’s got the beat!), has just published a sensational coffee-table book, “Made In Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s” (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, 2021) that features photos from Schock’s own stock, as well as her own personal recollections of her life in music. She made time for an interview before the publication of the book as well as the Go-Go’s long-awaited induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later this month.
GREGG SHAPIRO/WASHINGTON BLADE: I’d like to begin by congratulating you, as well as the rest of the Go-Go’s, on your upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. How do you feel about it?
GINA SCHOCK: It took so long for this to happen, and at first we were sort of like, “Hell’s bells! We don’t even care anymore.” Every year, we’d think “Maybe it’s gonna happen next year,” and it just wasn’t happening. Then it happens! We were all dumbfounded. We couldn’t really believe that we were nominated and then we got inducted! Everybody was pleasantly surprised. This is kind of great, kind of neat. I’m really happy about this now [laugh].
BLADE: At the same time, your memoir “Made in Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s,” is being released. What did the experience of writing such a book mean to you?
SCHOCK: Actually, Gregg, it’s not a memoir. Kathy (Valentine) wrote a memoir. Mine is actually a book of photography.
BLADE: Right, but you also tell your story in the book.
SCHOCK: There’s a lot of writing in it, too. But I basically put this together because I had tons and tons of photographs. I’ve been moving them all over. Putting them in the closet here, under the bed there. I was like, “I have to do something with this. All these years of taking photos of the band.” Of course, everybody in the band was like. “Gina, you really need to put a photo book together!” I finally found the right guy to do it with and he helped me get it together, organize it, and help me work on the book. I couldn’t believe that along with the list of my credits will be photographer and author. It’s kind of mind-blowing. Things that you don’t think you’re capable of, and then when you have an opportunity to do something and maybe make a difference…certainly for The Go-Go’s. This needed to be out there. This is way long overdue; a book of photos with all of us. Photos that I’ve had that people have never seen. Also, you’re getting these photos from a band member’s perspective. With writing from one of the band members about what was going on during that period of time.
BLADE: I’m sure that looking at the pictures brought back lots of memories, but were you also a journal or diary keeper?
SCHOCK: Check this out! I don’t have a journal, but since 1978, Gregg, I have been keeping daily planners every single year. I’ve written down things that were going on during that time period. Not big, long stories, but this happened today, that happened yesterday, next week we’re going to be doing this. I used that as my reference. It was invaluable in the process. I now need to make room for them in the closet. I’ve got them all in drawers in cabinets in my office. It’s like, “OK, there’s no more room here [laughs]!” They were invaluable, like I said, in putting this together. What exact date did this happen? What was going on in November of ’83? It was important to have.
BLADE: Do you see the book as an extension of Alison Ellwood’s 2020 Go-Go’s documentary?
SCHOCK: No, but I’ll tell you that 99% of the photos in Alison’s documentary are mine.
It’s not an extension of that. This book has been in the works for decades. I just needed to find the right person to help me get it together. But when Alison was interviewing, I’d show her a photo and she would say, “Gina, can we come back and get some of these photos for the documentary?” I was like, “Of course, you can!” The majority of what you saw are my photos.
BLADE: The book is full of marvelous personal history details, such as performing with the late Edith Massey, known to many from her performances in some of John Waters’ movies. What do you think Edie would think of the book?
SCHOCK: She would be, [imitating Massey] “Oh, Gina, I’m so happy about your book! Finally, it’s about time!” Bless her heart and soul. I was doing an interview yesterday and I said, “If it wasn’t for Edie, I don’t know if The Go-Go’s would exist. Certainly not in the way that they have for the last more than 40 years. Things happen in a magical way, how it all comes together. No one really knows why somebody meets someone on that particular day at that particular time, and then something comes out of that that you can’t believe. Edie gave me the opportunity to come out to LA and San Francisco and New York and actually play in clubs. We got to play at Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s; what a thrill that was. Then to come to LA and do three nights of the Nuart Theater and then play The Warfield up in San Francisco. That was the first time I’d ever been on a plane! After doing that with Edie, the minute I got back to Baltimore I realized it was time to make a move. It gave me the courage to believe that I could go back to any one of these places and I’m going to do something! By the way, Edie was such a lovely person. A sweetheart.
BLADE: Another scoop for the readers that I loved was the part about the Go-Go’s performing with ska in the early 1980s, leading to the collaboration with Terry Hall on the song “Our Lips are Sealed,” which was a much bigger hit for the Go-Go’s than for Terry’s band Fun Boy Three. Do you know how he felt about that?
SCHOCK: I have no idea how he felt, but I’m sure he was happy because all Terry Hall was hearing was “ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching [laughs].” I think Terry was quite happy about that. I would be. When Jane brought in the song, she was scared to death to play it for us because it was basically like a love letter that she readjusted a little bit lyrically and put some chords and a melody to. She played it for us, and we were like, “Jane, this song’s great!”
BLADE: We are all saddened by the recent passing of Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones. In your book, you wrote about the Go-Go’s opening for The Rolling Stones. Can you please say a few words about what Charlie meant to you as a fellow drummer?
SCHOCK: There were two drummers that were my heroes growing up. That was Charlie Watts and John Bonham (of Led Zeppelin). Those two guys are part of the reason I started and kept playing drums. To think that many years later I actually got to meet my hero and talk to him. I got to sit on his drum kit! I talked to his drum tech!
That was one of the biggest thrills of my life. Then to be able to just open for the Stones, I mean, God! Wow, what a thrill! He was, of course, a gentleman. Very quiet kind of guy; soft-spoken. A lovely guy; very personable, very sweet. I didn’t have a lot of time to talk to him, but when I did my heart was pounding. I couldn’t believe it. Meeting David Bowie was the same sort of thing. You have such adoration for these people. The impact they have on your life in many ways, not just musically.
BLADE: You put some personal thoughts and experiences in the book, including your open-heart surgery to correct an atrial septal defect, yours and the band’s encounters with drugs and recovery, the break-up of the band and issues with songwriting revenue. Was it painful or freeing to revisit these subjects?
SCHOCK: It was a little bit of both. It brought up some really heavy things that went down. But all those things have been ironed out and taken care of. Everything is good now and it has been for many years. The songwriting splits were a big part of why the band broke up. It seemed very unfair to me. I have to tell the truth [laughs]. I have to be honest with the people that I’m working with. They are my family, and nobody can hurt you worse than somebody in your family. I think I explained it all in the book the best that I can.
BLADE: Following the original break-up of the Go-Go’s, you formed the band House of Schock with Vance DeGeneres, brother of Ellen DeGeneres. What are the chances that, aside from the Smothers Brothers, two funny people would come from the same womb?
SCHOCK: Yeah, right [laughs]? It’s crazy, right? Vance was fresh out of New Orleans and I don’t know how I met him; (through) a friend of a friend or something. We hit it off right away. I don’t like to do anything by myself, Gregg. I always want a partner in crime. I like a team! That’s why I always want to be in a band. I never want to be a solo anything. I like being in a band. I like having other people to bounce ideas off of. I’m not the greatest at anything, but I’m pretty good when you put me with somebody else who’s talented as well. Vance and I worked great together. Ellen had just come to town and she was just starting out in the comedy clubs. We’d meet and have dinner. She’d ask me lots of questions about who I thought was a good agent to see. It was very sweet to watch everything happen for her. One of the funniest things, I told this to somebody the other day, I’ll never forget this. Ellen said to me, “Gina, do you think if I make a lot of money one day, would you sell me your house [laughs]?” I don’t remember what I said, but I’ll never forget her asking me that. Because Ellen could buy a city block!
BLADE: In 2018, the Go-Go’s went to Broadway with the musical Head Over Heels, featuring the band’s music. What was that experience like for you?
SCHOCK: That was another unbelievable moment being in the Go-Go’s. To think that this punk band, so many years later, has a musical on Broadway is absurd. But it happened! It’s another crazy thing that just happened! There’s a lot of work involved, don’t get me wrong, and years and years of being in this band and working our butts off to achieve the status that we have in the industry. But it was still an incredible thrill. To meet all the Broadway actors and all, my God, those people can really sing and act! I was never a big fan of Broadway, but I am now. I was knocked out! They’re so fucking talented. It’s such a thrill to watch them interpreting our songs woven into this 17th-century short story.
BLADE: Recently, Belinda’s son (James) Duke (Mason), posted a happy birthday message to you on social media in which he referred to you as his “Auntie.”
SCHOCK: Yes! I love Dukie! I watched that little boy grow up. I just adore him. I will always be in his life. He’s very precious to me.
BLADE: When Duke came out, Belinda became a very outspoken advocate for the community. Would you mind saying a few words about your connection to the LGBTQ+ community?
SCHOCK: I don’t know what my relationship really is. All I know is that I’m who I am. I’m a musician and I will fight for anything or anybody that has had a difficult time in society. Just live your life. Society creates its own do’s and don’ts and rights and wrongs for people, which is just a load of crap to me. Everyone should be allowed to be who they are, and love who they want to love, and marry who they want to marry. Love is love; it has no gender. It’s the most important thing we can give to one another. It’s what this world needs now more than ever. Never think for a second you haven’t got the right to love whomever you fall for because love is always right. It is a human right!
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