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A timely biography of drag queen Doris Fish

An eye-opener to queer life in Sydney and San Francisco

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(Book cover image courtesy Amazon)

‘Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag’
By Craig Seligman
c.2023, PublicAffairs
$29/352 pages

Tennessee, home of Dollywood, just passed legislation banning “adult-oriented performances that are harmful to minors.”

“If I hadn’t been a girl, I’d have been a drag queen,” Dolly Parton has said. (Make of that what you will, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.)

Nothing is more timely than cultural critic and writer Craig Seligman’s new work of queer history “Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag.”

One day in the 1980s, Doris Fish, a San Francisco drag queen, sat for a shoot in a beauty salon. Sitting under a dryer, “curlers in his yellow fright wig, wearing a fuchsia top, turquoise pedal pushers, white peep-toe pumps and (too much) matching makeup, wide-eyed in what looks like despair,” Fish modeled for West Graphics, a local greeting card company, Seligman writes.

These greeting cards featured queer humor. “BOTH YOUR DOCTOR & HAIRDRESSER AGREE! THIS TIME IT’S GOING TO TAKE MORE THAN A COMB-OUT,” the caption to the card with Fish’s stunning beauty parlor photo, read.

Then, most gay people weren’t proud or irritated by these greeting cards, reports Seligman in his captivating history of drag told through the life of Fish, who was legendary in San Francisco from the 1970s until he died from AIDS in 1991.

The greeting cards were just funny to queer people at that moment, Seligman writes, “which was how the rest of the country saw them, too.”

“Yet it’s hard to envision their taking off the way they did a decade earlier,” he adds, “The very people who might once have been appalled to learn they had a queer family member were snapping up these artifacts of gay humor.”

This is one of the many insights into cultural changes in attitudes toward queer people and drag to be found in Seligman’s illuminating bio of Fish.

Fish was born into a middle-class, Catholic family in 1952 as Philip Clargo Mills in Manly Vale, a suburb of Sydney, Australia. (Even the most ironic novelist wouldn’t have come up with that name!)

Doris considered himself to be what we, today, would call cisgender, Seligman reports. 

Fish’s Australian friends and family referred to Fish as “he” and “him,” Seligman writes.  When Fish’s queer male friends called him “she,” it was “Mary camp banter,” not “gender confusion,” he adds. For these reasons, Seligman refers to Fish with masculine pronouns.

After a childhood spent quietly drawing, Fish became a star of the Sydney drag queen scene. He performed with, what Seligman calls a “psyche troupe” of drag queens, Sylvia and the Synthetics.

After moving to San Francisco in the 1970s, Fish performed in the beloved drag shows “Sluts a Go-Go” and “Nightclub of the Living Dead” as well as the outrageous sci-fi drag film “Vegas in Space.”

Fish, Seligman makes clear, was complex, talented, and creative. Along with being a drag queen, he was a sex worker and artist. Fish was disciplined in all these areas of his life, Seligman writes.

“All three of those personas centered on his gayness,” Seligman adds, “at a time when homosexuality was just beginning to make its way toward the center of the conversation in both of the countries [Australia and the U.S.] he called home.”

Fish’s life and work were entwined with queer history – from Club 181 to Anita Bryant’s vicious anti-queer “Save Our Children Campaign” to the heroic role that Dianne Feinstein (as mayor of San Francisco) played during the AIDS crisis. Many queer histories, especially of the AIDS crisis, focus on New York. Seligman’s work is an eye-opener to queer life in Sydney and San Francisco. 

Seligman’s husband,  Silvana Nova, was part of “Vegas in Space.” A hat tip to Seligman for working his spouse seamlessly into this thoughtful history.

Drag shows aren’t just entertainment. They accomplish “satire’s deepest dream: not just to rail against society, but to change it,” Seligman writes.

If only Gov. Bill Lee and his ilk could be changed by “Who Does That Bitch Think She Is? Doris Fish and the Rise of Drag.” 

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Books

Reading ‘Blue Hunger’ is like watching a Stanley Kubrick film

Lush, dreamlike, and you won’t be able to stop thinking about it

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(Book cover image courtesy of Bloomsbury)

‘Blue Hunger’ 
By Viola Di Grado, translated by Jamie Richards
c.2023, Bloomsbury
$27/ 216 pages

You can’t stop thinking about it.

It’s been rolling around in your mind since it happened and you can’t stop. You replay it over and over, how it started, how it progressed, why it ended. You wonder if it’ll happen again and in the new novel “Blue Hunger” by Viola Di Grado, you wonder if you truly want it to.

Shanghai was not her first choice for a place to live. Sometimes, she wasn’t really even sure why she came there, except that it was Ruben’s dream.

For months and months, he spoke of Shanghai, showed her maps, talked of a life as a chef living in a high-rise apartment, and he taught her a little bit of the language. She never fully understood why Ruben loved China and she never thought to ask before her other half, her twin brother, her only sibling died.

She was brushing her teeth when it happened. Now, weeks later, she was in his favorite city, a teacher of Italian languages in a Chinese culture, alone, friendless. Then she met Xu.

It happened at the nightclub called Poxx and she later wondered, with a thrill, if Xu had been stalking her. Xu claimed that she was a student in the Italian class, but though she was usually good with faces, she didn’t remember the slender, “glorious” woman with milk-white skin and luminous eyes.

She did remember the first place she and Xu had sex.

It was a hotel, but Xu liked it outside, too; in public, on sidewalks, in abandoned buildings, and in crowded nightclubs. They took yellow pills together, slept together in Xu’s squalid apartment; she told Xu she loved her but never got a reply except that Xu starting biting.

Xu had used her teeth all along but she started biting harder.

Soon, she was bleeding, bruising from Xu’s bites, and seeing people in the shadows, and she began to understand that Ruben wouldn’t have liked Xu at all.

You know what you want. You’re someone with determination. And you may want this book, but there are a few things you’ll need to know first.

Reading “Blue Hunger” is like watching a Stanley Kubrick movie. It’s surreal, kind of gauzy, and loaded with meanings that are somewhat fuzzy until you’ve read a paragraph several times – and even then, you’re not quite sure about it. Author Viola Di Grado writes of sharp, unfinished mourning with a grief-distracting obsession layered thickly on top, of control and submission, and while the chapters are each brief, they feel too long but not long enough. There are so many questions left dangling within the plot of this story, so many small bits unsaid, but also too much information of the mundane sort. You’ll feel somewhat voyeuristic with this book in your hands, until you notice that the sex scenes here are humidly uber-fiery but not very detailed.

Overall, then, “Blue Hunger” is different but compelling, short enough to read twice, quickly. It’s lush, dreamlike, and once started, you won’t be able to stop thinking about it.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Washington Blade editor tells all in new book

Kevin Naff revisits 20 years in the battle for LGBTQ equality in tome that is part history lesson, part celebrity dish

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Washington Blade Editor Kevin Naff’s new book is out this week. (Washington Blade photo montage)

Washington Blade Editor Kevin Naff this week published his first book, “How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality — And How Our Enemies Could Take It All Away.”

The book commemorates Naff’s 20 years editing the Blade and features two decades of his work updated with new insights and commentary, touching on everything from the fight for marriage equality and repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to celebrity encounters and the outing of public figures.

It’s part history lesson and part celebrity dish, available now at Amazon.com and kevinnaff.com

The following is adapted from an interview between Rob Watson of Rated LGBT Radio and Naff. To listen to the full interview, visit blogtalkradio.com/ratedlgbtradio.

The two-decades long war in Afghanistan was the longest in U.S. history. Wars for civil rights have been much longer, and for many, nowhere near over. Ours for LGBTQ rights is a prime example.

While gains in our particular war have been many, and by historical standards, have come incredibly fast, they have now been fought by several generations.

Author and Washington Blade editor Kevin Naff highlights this perspective in his new book “How We Won the War for LGBTQ Equality.”  

“Two decades represents a mere blip in the arc of a civil rights struggle, yet in that span, the LGBTQ community in the United States went from legally second-class status to enjoying near full protection of federal law along with widespread societal acceptance and even full marriage rights,” Naff writes.

He is aware that this look into our collective history represents a glimpse into a broader, and more painful fight, where many LGBTQ families lost their fights. “Not a week has gone by in my 20 years at the Blade that I didn’t think of the generation of gay men before me who didn’t live to see all of this progress,” he writes. “They inspire me. I do this work for them. They did not die in vain. Not just the men who died, but the lesbians who cared for them when no one else would. They are not forgotten.”

“This is not a dry history lesson type of book, but if you want to learn, the book does tell the marriage equality battle, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ and how a lot of our wins unfolded,” Naff declared when he sat down with me on the Rated LGBT Radio podcast

He’s right. “How to Win” shares many of Naff’s articles written as events were unfolding. Absorbing these as a modern reader, I found my deep desire to fight against anything less than full equality, and repression against our abilities to self-actualize, getting hungrier and hungrier.

For those wanting “shade and the truth,” this book delivers, as it’s filled with page-turning anecdotes to keep you glued and voracious right to the very end.

Like many of us, Naff was persecuted for being perceived as gay when he was a kid. “The walk home from school was particularly terrifying — I walked alone and my tormentors would often follow, hurling rocks and anti-gay slurs. Sometimes the fear was so intense that I would feign sick just to avoid a day of the torture,” he writes. His youth was not a time when there was much sympathy, or help, for LGBTQ children. It was the time of do-it-yourself. “There was the day I finally snapped, in seventh grade, while being taunted by a kid in gym class. The insults and threats became too much and all the anger rushed out of me…I defended myself. And it felt good,” Naff reveals. He acknowledges that his bullies “forced me to cultivate an inner strength.”

Years later, as a journalist and conscience for public progressives, Naff’s unwillingness to back down, and passion to stand and fight, emerge time and time again in the book.

While he writes of contempt for George W. Bush’s opportunistic use of same-sex marriage as a campaign wedge issue, Naff stepped up his fight to the next level when facing Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley. O’Malley was a progressive who used LGBTQ goodwill and campaign muscle to get elected. When an appeals court rejected same-sex marriage, O’Malley went from champion to cad at light speed. He issued an offensive statement about Catholic sacraments and asserted his opposition to marriage equality.

So, Naff outed the governor’s brother, Patrick. (That the brother was gay was a fact commonly known in social circles, but had not reached the media level previously).

The governor was mad, but Naff landed a one-on-one interview with O’Malley, and eventually a path to the governor flipping support on the issue.

Naff’s unwillingness to allow LGBTQ people to be pushed around is not just with public figures who use us and then abandon us, people he calls “duplicitous allies,” but he feels no hesitancy in confronting Hollywood icons and their cults, as John Travolta found out.

Naff went viral with a piece in 2007 when he wrote a blog post criticizing the casting of a potentially closeted and indoctrinated Scientologist John Travolta, as the Divine-inspired drag role in John Waters’ musical version of “Hairspray.”

That post “generated the most attention and traffic of anything I’ve written,” Naff says. “My blog post encouraged gay fans to boycott the new film because its star, John Travolta, was Scientology’s No. 2 spokesperson and his cult was known to engage in reparative therapy, the debunked practice of changing one’s sexual orientation.”

Mainstream gossip media declared that “the gays were boycotting Hairspray.” Soon Naff found himself inundated with death threats, and being summoned by both Fox News and the Church of Scientology itself.

Naff agreed to a face off with Fox’s Bill O’Reilly whose friendly off-air persona turned rabid in front of the cameras. When Naff pointed out that he was comparing gay people to drug addicts, O’Reilly snarled, “Don’t be a wise guy, Mr. Naff.”

Naff’s biggest sin, according to the Church of Scientology, was referring to it as a “cult.” To prove that they weren’t, the president of the D.C. church invited Naff for a meeting. Upon arrival at the Scientology mansion in Dupont Circle, the church president gave Naff a tour, which included an “immaculate first-floor formal office.” After inquiring whose office it was, Naff was told that it was “Mr. Hubbard’s office” and that every church location had one. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard had been dead for 21 years at that point.

“Cult!” Naff and I exclaimed in unison as he told me the story.

As editor of the Washington Blade, Naff is an established invitee to the journalistic event of each season: The White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner.  He writes about his dates he has taken each year from the heavenly (Judith Light) to the disastrous (Kathy Griffin). The latter made a point to scream expletives at Trump administration officials in attendance.

While Naff could appreciate the sentiment, Griffin left D.C. the next day, while he, the in-town professional, had to face all of her targets.

Laverne Cox was also a standout date. She accompanied Naff the night after Caitlyn Jenner’s televised coming out interview aired. “If one more reporter asks me about fucking Caitlyn Jenner, I’m going to lose it,” Naff reports Cox confiding. His story about Laverne Cox was not so much about Jenner, however, but reads like something out of “Oceans 8.”

Unlike the movie, Naff’s evening did not feature a planned jewel heist, nor were Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett anywhere in sight, but it did feature a pricey borrowed diamond bracelet that went missing off of Cox’s wrist. She feared the jeweler would accuse her of theft. The dilemma ultimately had one of the most famous transgender actresses of all time, and the editor of the nation’s oldest LGBTQ publication frantically crawling under banquet tables surrounded by the Washington elite and press corps.

Cox finally found the bauble at 4 a.m., deep at the bottom of her purse.

Washington Blade Editor Kevin Naff (right) with senior news reporter Lou Chibbaro Jr. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

“How We Won” covers the arc of LGBTQ history over two crucial decades and hits on topics from bullying of youth, the “ex-gay” movement, the military, religion, police, and, of course, marriage equality. Besides his adventures with cults chasing him down, A-lister dates and angry governors, Naff also shares poignant emotional moments of his own.

One came in shocking fashion when he arrived to the Washington Blade offices one morning to find two men from the Blade’s then-parent company. They were there to shut the place down after a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing.

Naff retreated to his office, scrambling to think out the next move. The Blade staff resolved to not give up and successfully put out a slim newssheet for a few months until they could recover the Blade’s assets from the bankruptcy court and keep the legacy alive.

One of the great ironies of the LGBTQ movement is that many people who have fought for progress are not the ones who live to enjoy all the gains. They win the battles but leave the new world for others to fully enjoy.

Naff is one of those pioneers. After an adult life fighting for LGBTQ people to exercise the right to marry our loves in a fully public, accepting way, challenging all who might deny a same-sex couple service, Naff had a life-changing revelation that made him choose to walk away from a huge wedding event for himself.

Months before his own wedding, he was in a serious automobile accident. He called his fiancé and pitched the idea of a small ceremony on the beach, followed by a gay cruise together around Asia. “Something happens when you are faced with a life-or-death kind of moment. It changes what’s important. It changes your perspective,” he tells me.

Naff started out his writing career as a 10-year-old writing to the Washington Post as a pissed-off Baltimore Orioles fan protesting the Major League Baseball strike of 1981. “I am STILL a pissed off Baltimore Orioles fan,” he says. From day one, he found his knack for observation and his gift for pointed communication. Those are the same qualities he brings to his participation in, and presentation of, our LGBTQ historic trek to equality victory. 

In “How We Won,” he tells an unvarnished story, as he saw it, as he wrote about it, and continues to tell it, at the helm of the Washington Blade. He tells of the right-wing figures he confronted and continues to confront. He thinks of the term “outing” as an archaic term. Today, it is simply “truth-telling” of those in the public eye. As much as the title of his book implies a “win” and completion, I am confident that the 10-year-old pissed-off Baltimore Orioles fan within is not done.

Naff’s subtitle, after all, is “And How Our Enemies Could Take it All Away.”

A post-war recap for Kevin Naff might have been best expressed by the fictional Mr. Incredible when he said, “No matter how many times you save the world, it always manages to get back in jeopardy again. Sometimes I just want it to stay saved!”

As homophobic, transphobic Republican legislation sweeps the country, it is clear, we are not done and a new chapter in the war has begun. At the end of “The Incredibles,” continuing the allegory, after a family of progressives have saved the world, a huge noisy crew disrupts it (symbolic of the MAGA wave). Out pops the Under-Miner who declares, “Behold, The Under-Miner! I am always beneath you, but NOTHING is beneath me! (As it seems so for the GOP.) I hereby declare war on peace and happiness! Soon all will tremble before me!” 

The music swells, and the family of authentic-selves look at each other with a smirk, opening their shirts to reveal that they are Incredibles. They know that this time, like last time, they will not be defeated.

So stands Kevin Naff, looking back and looking forward, with his band of Incredibles, LGBTQ journalists worldwide, and the rest of us, ready to fight the fight again.

As we prepare for the new battles ahead, the principles of “How We Won” will be our tools for ultimate victory: be visible, be assertive, confront lies and injustice, reinvent, rebirth and in the end, hold our personal loves sacred.

Kevin Naff and Mr. Incredible would stand for nothing less. Neither should you.

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‘Oscar Wars’ an exhilarating read for film critics and fans alike

Awards a conflict zone for issues of race, gender, representation

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(Book cover image courtesy of Harper)

‘Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears
By Michael Schulman
c.2023, Harper
$40/589 pages

Get out the guacamole! The game, beloved by millions — especially queers — is being played. This Sunday, the 95th Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles will be seen worldwide.

Few have written more compellingly about the ego, campiness, politics, and intrigue of the Academy Awards than Michael Schulman in his new book “Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears.”

The Oscars are “the closest thing America has to royalty,” writes Schulman, a staff writer at The New Yorker. “They’re the only thing forcing Hollywood to factor art into commerce.”

Schulman likens the Oscars to a horse race and a relic. The Academy Awards prop up Hollywood, a multibillion-dollar business, canonize movies and showcase fashion, he notes.

“They’re an orgy of self-congratulation by rich and famous people who think too highly of themselves.” Schulman adds, “They’re the Gay Super Bowl.” 

You can bet that every year, something will throw the Oscars off their game. Last year, it was the Slap (when Will Smith, upset by Chris Rock’s joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, hit the comedian).

There are the insipid production numbers and lackluster hosts. More seriously, there is the continuing racism and sexism in Hollywood.

You have to keep the Academy Awards in perspective, Schulman wryly notes. “The Oscars … are always getting it wrong,” he writes, “Twenty-four centuries after Euripides came in third place at the Athenian dramatic festival, Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture to Crash, and the outcry will probably last another twenty-four centuries.” 

It’s tempting to view the Academy Awards annual bash as enjoyable froth. To lap up the glam, glitz, and camp. But in “Oscar Wars,” Schulman persuasively argues that the Oscars should, also, be taken seriously.

“The Oscars are a battlefield,” Schulman writes, “where cultural forces collide and where the victors aren’t always as clear as the names drawn from the envelopes.”

“In recent years,” he adds, “the Oscars have become a conflict zone for issues of race, gender, and representation, high profile signifiers of whose stories get told and whose don’t.”

Thankfully, Schulman’s nearly 600-page book isn’t an Oscars encyclopedia. Volumes of Oscar facts and trivia already exist. Even if you’re a movie buff, these books will make your eyes glaze over. “Oscar Wars” is filled with Schulman’s painstaking research and in-depth reporting. It’s not surprising that he’s said in interviews that he worked on the book for four years.

Schulman, author of “”Her Again: Becoming Meryl Streep,” is a powerhouse. While writing “Oscar Wars,” Schulman produced numerous hard-to-put-down profiles at his New Yorker day job. Tongues are still wagging over his profile of actor Jeremy Strong (Kendall Roy in “Succession”).

In 11 intriguing installments, Schulman illuminates how, from the first Academy Awards in 1929 to our present #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo era, conflict has been embedded in the Oscars.

The Academy Awards was started in an effort to squelch labor unions in Hollywood. Spoiler alert: the effort of Louis B. Mayer and other Hollywood moguls to stop the unions flopped as the awards caught on.

There’s much in “Oscar Wars” to engage Old Hollywood aficionados. There’s the sad tale of Peg Entwistle, a 24-year-old actress, who, in 1932, played Hazel in “Thirteen Women, a movie about a group of former sorority sisters. Hazel stabs her husband. Entwistle’s 16 minutes in the movie were cut to four, Schulman writes, because the Hays office felt “that her scenes with another actress had unacceptable lesbian undertones.” After a series of horrible events, the actress killed herself.

There is the story of how one of Bette Davis’s husbands divorced her because she read too much.

It’s well-known among cinephiles that Bette Davis (for “All About Eve”) and Gloria Swanson (for “Sunset Boulevard”) were up against each other in 1951 for the Oscar and lost to Judy Holliday (for “Born Yesterday”). But Schulman brings new depth and insight into this saga.

The Academy Awards are steeped in Hollywood and entertainment. But Schulman makes it clear that the Oscars, from the Black List of the 1940s-1950s to the racism of “Gone with the Wind” to sexism to homophobia, are entwined with cultural attitudes and politics.

“Citizen Kane” was one of the greatest films ever made. Yet, there was no way it could have won an Oscar because the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst was furious that “Kane’s” protagonist was based on him.

One of the most campy, but poignant, accounts in the book is that of Allan Carr, who produced the 1989 Oscars. Carr, who was gay, dreamed up a tasteless, unintentionally campy production number. It featured Rob Lowe and Snow White (Google it.) Yet, he created, Schulman reports, some innovations that are still part of the Oscars (such as the red carpet).

“Oscar Wars” is an exhilarating read for everyone from film critics to fans.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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